Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are a group of 17 chemically similar elements crucial to numerous high-tech industries. These elements include the 15 lanthanides on the periodic table plus scandium and yttrium, which tend to occur in the same ore deposits and exhibit similar chemical properties. Despite their name, REEs are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, but their concentrations are low, making them challenging to mine economically.

Brief History and Discovery

The discovery of REEs began in the late 18th century. The first rare earth mineral discovered was gadolinite, a compound of cerium, yttrium, iron, silicon, and other elements, mined in a village in Sweden. Over the next century, all the rare earth elements were identified. The discovery was predominantly led by chemists who were isolating new elements from minerals where these elements typically occur. Their unique electronic configurations make them difficult to separate from each other, leading to advances in chemical separation techniques.

Importance of REEs in Modern Technology

REEs are critical to modern technology and are essential in the manufacture of a wide range of high-tech applications. They are key components in the production of permanent magnets used in wind turbines and electric vehicle motors, phosphors in color displays, batteries, and advanced ceramics. Their unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties make them irreplaceable in many applications, including smartphones, computers, and defense technologies. The demand for REEs has surged with the expansion of these high-tech markets, highlighting their role in global economic development and technological advancement.

Their significance extends to strategic considerations as well, as countries vie for access and control over these crucial resources, underscoring the geopolitical implications of rare earth supply chains. The technological reliance on REEs means that they continue to play a pivotal role in shaping modern technology landscapes and sustainability efforts worldwide.

What are Rare Earth Elements?

Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are a set of seventeen metallic elements that include fifteen lanthanides on the periodic table plus scandium and yttrium. These elements share similar chemical properties but have distinct physical behaviors, particularly in their electronic and magnetic characteristics. REEs are known for their ability to conduct electricity, generate light, and enhance magnetism, which makes them highly valuable in various high-tech applications.

List of Elements Classified as REEs

The 17 elements that are classified as REEs include:

  1. Scandium (Sc)
  2. Yttrium (Y)
  3. Lanthanum (La)
  4. Cerium (Ce)
  5. Praseodymium (Pr)
  6. Neodymium (Nd)
  7. Promethium (Pm)
  8. Samarium (Sm)
  9. Europium (Eu)
  10. Gadolinium (Gd)
  11. Terbium (Tb)
  12. Dysprosium (Dy)
  13. Holmium (Ho)
  14. Erbium (Er)
  15. Thulium (Tm)
  16. Ytterbium (Yb)
  17. Lutetium (Lu)

These elements are often found together in various mineral ores and are notoriously challenging to separate due to their similar chemical properties.

Abundance and Geographical Distribution

Global distribution of Rare Earths | Spatialnode

Although termed “rare,” rare earth elements are fairly abundant in the Earth’s crust. However, they are rarely found in concentrated forms, which makes them economically challenging to extract. They are less abundant than common metals like iron but are more prevalent than precious metals like gold.

The geographical distribution of REEs is quite varied:

  • China is the largest producer of REEs, controlling a significant portion of the world’s supply. The country has extensive mining operations and advanced processing capabilities that handle a large fraction of the global demand.
  • Australia also has considerable rare earth reserves and is one of the leading exporters of these elements.
  • United States has REE resources, particularly in California’s Mountain Pass mine and potential untapped reserves in other locations.
  • India, Brazil, and Malaysia also contribute to the global supply of rare earths, though to a lesser extent than China and Australia.
  • Canada and some African countries like Burundi and Tanzania are exploring and developing their REE resources to enter the market.

This diverse geographical distribution is crucial because it involves geopolitical considerations, as countries seek to secure stable and sustainable supplies of these vital elements for their industries.

Mining and Production of Rare Earth Elements (REEs)

Key Locations of REE Mining Activities Globally

  1. China: Dominates the global landscape in REE mining and processing, particularly in the provinces of Inner Mongolia and Sichuan. China’s control over REEs is extensive, influencing global prices and supply chains.
  2. United States: The Mountain Pass mine in California is one of the richest REE deposits in the West and has been a focal point for U.S. efforts to revive its domestic rare earth industry.
  3. Australia: Significant mining occurs at the Mount Weld mine in Western Australia, one of the richest deposits of REEs outside China.
  4. Russia and Kazakhstan: Both countries have considerable REE resources and have been working to increase their production capacities.
  5. India: Has several smaller mines contributing to both domestic needs and limited export.
  6. Brazil: Possesses substantial REE potential, particularly in the states of Minas Gerais and Goiás.
  7. Vietnam: Has potential for significant REE production, with large deposits yet to be fully exploited.

Mining Techniques and Processing of REEs

REE mining involves several complex and labor-intensive processes:

  • Extraction: REEs are extracted from the ground using traditional mining techniques, including open pit mining and, less commonly, underground mining.
  • Crushing and Milling: The ore is crushed and milled to reduce the size of the rock particles and expose the minerals containing the REEs.
  • Concentration: The crushed ore is processed through flotation and other methods to increase the concentration of REEs.
  • Separation: The concentrated ore undergoes chemical separation processes to individualize each element. This is often done using solvent extraction, where different solvents selectively bind to different REEs.
  • Refining: Finally, the separated elements are refined to high purity levels for industrial use.

Environmental and Geopolitical Challenges Associated with REE Mining

Environmental Challenges:

  • Toxicity: The processing of REEs generates significant amounts of toxic and radioactive waste, which poses severe environmental and health risks if not managed properly.
  • Land Degradation: Extensive mining operations disrupt local ecosystems, lead to soil erosion, deforestation, and contamination of water sources.
  • Resource Depletion: The high demand for REEs can lead to overexploitation of these resources, affecting their availability and leading to more intensive and environmentally damaging mining efforts.

Geopolitical Challenges:

  • Supply Security: Countries heavily reliant on REEs for their technological industries, particularly those without domestic sources, face significant risks associated with supply disruptions from major producing nations.
  • Market Control: China’s dominance in the REE market provides it considerable leverage over other countries, influencing global economics and politics.
  • National Security: REEs are crucial for defense technologies, making secure and reliable access to these materials a national security issue for many nations.

These environmental and geopolitical issues require careful management and international cooperation to ensure that REE mining and processing are sustainable and equitable. Efforts to recycle REEs and develop alternative materials that can replace them in certain applications are also underway to mitigate some of these challenges

Applications of Rare Earth Elements in Technology

Figure 1. U.S. REE applications. Note: Adapted [reprinted] from “Rare Earths Infographic Rev,” by Thorium Energy Alliance, n.d. (https://bit.ly/3EYEYeN).

1. Electronics

Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are integral to various electronic devices, enhancing performance and enabling functionalities that are otherwise difficult to achieve:

  • Smartphones: REEs are used in the production of smartphone components such as speakers, microphones, and vibrators. Neodymium, for example, is used in the magnets that make speakers and microphones more compact yet powerful.
  • Computers: REEs such as yttrium and europium are critical for producing the colors on computer displays. Terbium can be found in solid-state devices like semiconductors.
  • Cameras: Lanthanum is used in camera lenses to enhance clarity and color correction due to its high refractive index and low dispersion properties.

2. Energy

In the renewable energy sector, REEs play a vital role in the functionality and efficiency of various technologies:

  • Wind Turbines: Neodymium magnets are used in the high-performance permanent magnets that are critical for the generators in wind turbines. These magnets allow for smaller, lighter, and more efficient generators.
  • Solar Panels: Some advanced solar panels use cerium to polish the glass surfaces, and other REEs can be used in the phosphors for solar cells.
  • Batteries: REEs such as lanthanum and cerium are used in nickel-metal hydride batteries, which are found in many hybrid vehicles and renewable energy storage systems.

3. Automotive

The automotive industry benefits significantly from the unique properties of REEs, especially in the development of more sustainable technologies:

  • Electric Vehicles (EVs): The motors of many electric vehicles rely on neodymium-based permanent magnets to operate efficiently. These magnets contribute to the high performance and durability required for automotive applications.
  • Hybrid Technologies: REEs like lanthanum are key components in the batteries used in hybrid cars, enhancing energy storage and output.

4. Defense

In defense technology, the properties of REEs are exploited for their performance-enhancing characteristics:

  • Guidance Systems: Gadolinium and samarium, with their exceptional magnetic and thermal properties, are used in precision-guided munitions and gyroscopes.
  • Night Vision Equipment: Rare earths like neodymium and erbium are essential for night vision goggles, as they improve the light-amplifying capabilities.
  • Communication Systems: Various REEs are used in high-performance communication devices, making them more reliable under extreme conditions and enhancing signal processing capabilities.


The diverse applications of REEs in technology highlight their critical role in advancing modern and future technologies. Their unique magnetic, optical, and electrical properties enable advancements across a wide range of industries, from everyday consumer electronics to critical defense systems. As technology continues to evolve, the demand for these elements is likely to increase, underscoring the need for sustainable mining practices and the exploration of alternative materials or recycling methods to mitigate the environmental impact.

Economic Impact of Rare Earth Elements (REEs)

The economic impact of Rare Earth Elements (REEs) is profound and multifaceted, influencing global markets, technology industries, and geopolitical dynamics. Here’s a breakdown of the key areas where REEs exert significant economic influence:

1. Technology and Innovation

REEs are critical to numerous high-tech and green technologies, which are essential for the digital and ecological transitions currently underway globally. They enable the miniaturization and enhancement of electronic devices like smartphones and laptops, and are indispensable in developing renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines and electric vehicles (EVs). The drive towards more sustainable and efficient technologies relies heavily on the unique properties of REEs, leading to growth in sectors that manufacture these products.

2. Supply Chain and Manufacturing

The manufacturing sectors in countries with access to REEs or the technology to process them gain a competitive edge. This is evident in the dominance of China, which not only mines but also processes a significant portion of the world’s REEs. This control over supply has made China a pivotal player in the global supply chain for technologies requiring these elements, influencing everything from production costs to innovation in manufacturing techniques.

3. Global Trade and Geopolitics

The strategic importance of REEs has made them a focal point in international relations and trade policies. Countries dependent on these elements for their technological industries are often at a disadvantage in negotiations with supplier countries. This has led to geopolitical tensions, especially where nations are pushing for diversification of supply to avoid reliance on a single source, primarily China. Efforts to establish alternative supplies and improve recycling of REEs are partly driven by these economic and geopolitical pressures.

4. Job Creation and Economic Development

Regions that invest in REE mining and processing facilities can experience significant economic development and job creation. However, the benefits are often balanced by the need for substantial investment in technology and infrastructure to manage the environmental impacts of REE mining. For example, the U.S. and Australia are actively investing in the entire REE supply chain, from mining to advanced processing capabilities, aiming to create jobs and enhance their industrial bases.

5. Price Volatility and Market Dynamics

The market for REEs is subject to significant price volatility due to their critical nature and the concentrated supply chain. Disruptions in supply, whether from political unrest, trade disputes, or environmental regulations, can lead to sharp price increases that ripple through multiple industries. This volatility encourages investment in REE recycling and the development of alternative materials that can reduce dependence on mined rare earths.

6. Environmental Costs and Investments

The extraction and processing of REEs come with high environmental costs, which can translate into economic burdens due to cleanup, pollution control, and the health impacts on local communities. Investments in cleaner and more efficient processing technologies are necessary to mitigate these impacts, adding another layer to the economic analysis of REE production.


The economic impact of REEs stretches across various dimensions of the global economy, from enhancing the capabilities of high-tech industries to influencing international trade policies. As the world increasingly turns to technology-driven solutions for energy and environmental challenges, the role of REEs will only grow, highlighting the need for sustainable practices and robust economic strategies to manage these critical resources effectively.