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Will rare earth elements power our clean energy future?

Rare earth elements (REEs), for so long ignored by big mining companies, have recently become incredibly popular. But, contrary to what their names suggests, they are not particularly rare. They do, however…

Four times Australia’s GDP could be hiding in here. AAP

Rare earth elements (REEs), for so long ignored by big mining companies, have recently become incredibly popular. But, contrary to what their names suggests, they are not particularly rare. They do, however, pose challenges for the companies now rushing to find and extract them.

The sudden demand for REEs comes from the important part they play in modern technology. They are crucial to much environmental technology like wind turbines and fuel cells.

They help make electronic parts smaller and faster, magnets more powerful, metal alloys stronger and flat screen TV pictures brighter.

They are important for industrial processes: they make chemical reactions faster and pollution control work better.

In short, they are extremely useful and more uses are being discovered all the time.

Overcoming short-term problems and long-term issues

Over the past two decades, China has dominated the global production and satisfied 90% or more of global demand. But, recently, China announced that it would severely restrict its exports of REEs due to rising problems with its mines. There is evidence of polluted waterways and radiation exposure affecting not only workers, but entire communities.

The minerals which contain REEs invariably contain some thorium and uranium, both radioactive elements. It’s not the sort of stuff you want to manage poorly, as China recently admitted.

While lack of supply due to China’s restrictions might be a short-term problem, the key long-term issues are what volume of REE resources actually exist, and how can the mining and processing be managed – especially the radioactive waste.

Surprisingly, on both fronts we can be justifiably positive.

In the past, the world had little use for REEs, so miners never bothered to look for them. Given the strong expected growth in REE demand for gadgets and green technology, however, there has been a global scramble over the past year to identify REE deposits. Mining companies are now looking very hard for any trace of REEs – and they will continue to find them. That’s because rare earth elements aren’t, in fact, scarce.

REEs are dirt-common in Australia

According to Geoscience Australia, Australia has 59.4 megatonnes (Mt) of sub-economic RRE resources in addition to its 1.65 megatonnes of economic REEs. Some 53 Mt of the sub-economic variety can be found in the giant Olympic Dam orebody in South Australia.

At the moment, the metals extracted from Olympic Dam include copper (valued at $671 billion), uranium ($287 billion), gold ($134 billion) and silver ($15 billion). Compare this with the estimated value of the REEs in the same orebody – a whopping $4,195 billion. That’s four times Australia’s current GDP.

In its current expansion plans, BHP Billiton (owners of the Olympic Dam site) are ignoring this remarkable value. They consider REE extraction “uneconomic” and claim the technology isn’t available, despite it being similar in most steps to the current processing at Olympic Dam.

This proposition is hard to believe in the face of the incredible value of Olympic Dam’s REEs – worth more than BHP Billiton’s Pilbara iron ore resources. (If I was a shareholder, I’d certainly be angry at BHP Billiton and asking the hard questions.)

But even if BHP Billiton does not decide to make REE extraction in South Australia a part of its future, the world’s REE deposits are abundant enough to supply the world for decades to come (even allowing for substantial demand growth).

Not rare, but definitely dangerous

The amount of REEs is not the problem. The radioactivity associated with them is, however.

The Mt Weld REE project being developed by Lynas in Western Australia, for example, plans to ship a REE concentrate to Gebeng in Pahang state, Malaysia, for the heavy chemical refining stages.

The local Malaysian community has strongly opposed this project, in large part due to the significant environmental and public health impacts from the former Asian Rare Earths refinery in Bukit Merah. This is now the site of one of Asia’s largest contaminated site cleanup operations.

This highlights the strong need to be upfront, transparent and thorough on all aspects of REE production – especially the radioactivity inherent in REE ores.

These issues can be managed with appropriate engineering design, construction, operation and decommissioning – but this cannot be achieved without world-class regulation, community engagement and business stewardship.

Let us hope that the emerging global REE industry meets the challenge of increased demand positively and that we all pay appropriately for the true costs of using REEs in our daily lives.

This article was co-authored by Zoe Sellwood, and based on her research.