The Anchor House, Inc.
Research on Rare Earth Elements

The Anchor House, Inc.

3 Secrets of Rare Earth Success in China

July 28th, 2009

By Clint Cox

1.  Rare Earth Elements (REE) come as a by-product from Bayan Obo iron ore operations. The rare earths are so plentiful at Bayan Obo, that until recently, they only recovered a fraction of the REEs.  This makes mining the REEs relatively cheap — as long as they mine iron ore, they will have REEs. Approximately 50% of the world’s total rare earth production comes from Bayan Obo. Also key is that bastnaesite is a rare earth mineral with a high theoretical 75% REO.

Bayan_Obo

Bayan Obo Bastnaesite

2.  The South China Clays are unique. These clays have fantastic rare earth distributions that are intensely skewed toward the heavy rare earths (HREEs), and are the main supplier of HREEs to the world market.  They have a very low REO% but they are able to be processed very cheaply with a relatively low degree of technology.  They are, however, faced with the challenge of preserving these resources while providing needed material to the marketplace — these are not limitless resources by any means.

3.  The Chinese are focused. Baotou alone has over 20,000 workers dedicated to the rare earth industry in one form or another.  Regional government agencies, as well as Beijing, are well aware of REEs as a strategic resource.  Research takes place in a methodical manner, and rare earth resources are managed on multiple levels.  The Chinese have specific, long-range plans to develop their rare earth sector, and there is a system of licenses, tariffs and export quotas in place to help protect the Chinese REE industry.  They have implemented a number of incentives to attract foreign investment.  In addition, the Chinese are very aware of developments outside China and have proven willing to participate beyond their borders.

BaotouREEZone

Small portion of scale model of Rare Earth Development Zone in Baotou

A Brief Rare Earth Reading List

July 21st, 2009

By Clint Cox

I am often asked for additional websites or resources that people can use to further understand the REEs.  In light of this, I would like to include a few links to some sites and books that may be helpful as a starting base for additonal rare earth research.  Some of the readers of this site may already be familar with these resources, so I apologize for the redundancy, but I hope to provide more resources in the future as well.

A good starting point is the US Geological Survey. Jim Hedrick has done some excellent work over his career at the USGS and his papers and charts are often quoted and used:

More at the USGS

An excellent overview by Hedrick and Stephen B. Castor can be found in Industrial Minerals & Rocks: Commodities, Markets, and Uses, 7th Edition published in 2006 and edited by Jessica Elzea Kogel, Nikhil C. Trivedi, James M. Barker, Stanley T. Krukowsk. The chapter can be found in PDF format at the bottom of the page at:

Castor & Hedrick

I have recently recommended “A Lanthanide Lanthology” by Barry T. Kilbourn — this is published by Molycorp and comes in two parts — Part 1, A-L and Part 2, M-Z.  It can be found in PDF format (scroll to the bottom of the page) at the following link:

Lanthanide Lanthology

A nice, quick read with good-looking pictures is The Lanthanides by Richard Beatty.  This a very short, basic book, but it is easily accessible — which can be a big plus for this complex topic! More can be found at:

The Lanthanides

And finally, a tough to find book with a great history of rare earths section, The Rare Earth Elements by D.N. Trifonov (translated and published in 1963 by Pergamon Press). Quite a bit of it is outdated, but the history and basics are a great read (if you’re into rare earths, of course!). More info is here — but it is hard to find:

The Rare-Earth Elements by Trifonov

That’s it for this week, but let me leave you with a picture. This is Über-instrumentation from the University of Manitoba — a SIMS (Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry):

SIMS

WTO Complaint Does NOT include Rare Earths

July 14th, 2009

By Clint Cox

Rare Earth a “No Show” at WTO!

How Rare Are “Rare Earths”?

July 14th, 2009

By Clint Cox

There are many ways to measure the abundance of the elements. We can look at the universe, the solar system, the sun, the moon, the seawater, even the backyard of a guy I know!

For example, the moon has a large amount of REEs.  According to G. Jeffrey Taylor:

The Procellarum KREEP Terrane (PKT) dominates the nearside of the Moon. “KREEP” is an acronym for lunar rocks that are high in potassium (K), rare earth elements (REE), and phosphorous (P).

moonshot

It’s difficult to see the REEs from here!

The article is quite interesting and provides some compelling info about rare earths on the moon, but we may be getting (decades?) ahead of ourselves here. Let’s dig a little closer to home.

Let’s focus on the earth’s crust (called “crustal abundance”) because that is where we find all of the good stuff that we scoop up and transform into the latest improvements that we refer to as our “standard of living”.

Thulium (Tm) is the rarest of the rare earths.  There is less than one hundredth of the amount of thulium in the earth’s crust as cerium (Ce).  For those of you out there who are big fans of parts per million (ppm), Tm clocks in at approximately o.5 ppm while Ce achieves about 66 ppm.  As a whole, the REEs total about 220 ppm in the earth’s crust.

thulium_cerium

Thulium and Cerium in metal form — vacuum sealed to avoid oxidation!

When rare earth oxide (REO) is expressed as a percentage, such as 3.5% REO, this can be converted to 35,000 ppm. This offers some guidance when looking at exploration companies that have difficulty attaining the crustal abundance of 220 ppm. But please remember, there is more to a potential rare earth project than just the ppm (as explained below)!

Now for some comparative perspective.  Thulium — as rare as it is — is more abundant than silver or gold.  Cerium is more common than lead or tin, and about even with copper in the earth’s crust. So why the hoopla?  A LOT of copper has been mined over the years.  And people just don’t seem to get as excited over those new lead discoveries as they used to. If rare earths are everywhere, do they deserve to be deemed “Rare”? I think so, for one simple reason: It is rare to find an economic “Rare Earth” deposit.

I won’t get into what makes an economic deposit here, but it is exceedingly difficult to find the right concentration of the right REE mineral with the right element distribution in the right location with the right metallurgy and the right market balance at the right time. Yikes!  That sounds pretty tough to find, and it is!

10… 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3…

References

Lide, D.R. (1997) Abundance of elements in the earth’s crust and sea, CRC Handbook of Physics and Chemistry, 78th edn., CRC Press Boca Raton, Florida.

The Current Light Weight Champion of Rare Earth Minerals

July 7th, 2009

By Clint Cox

All rare earth minerals are not created equal.

Some have a light rare earth (LREE) distribution of elements, some are more heavy rare earth (HREE) laden.  Some are carbonates, some are silicates, or phosphates.  Some have a high percentage of REEs within the mineral, some do not.  Some have been processed, and some have not.  And — quite frankly — some are pretty, and some are not.

This week we’ll focus on the lightweight (LREE) division of the rare earth world, and start with the creaky past champion, now sprawled on the sidelines hoping for another shot at the title: monazite.

Monazite

Monazite used to rule the market, being readily available in placer deposits around the world — from the United States, to Australia, India, and beyond.  Here is a shot of some monazite from a placer deposit:

placer_monazite

Monazite is a phosphate mineral mostly enriched in the LREE, and has a theoretical REO% of just under 70% (which means that if you have monazite, you may have up to 70% rare earths in the mineral).  However, even monazites may vary wildly, with some having elevated levels of neodymium (Nd) or other elements. One of the current drawbacks to monazite is that it can contain high levels of thorium (Th), which is radioactive and must be handled with environmental care.  It is possible that Th may become a viable nuclear fuel in the future, which may change the future outlook for this mineral. But for now let us reminisce and a take a look at some good-looking monazite from the Smithsonian:

Smithsonian_monazite

And finally, some monazite (mixed in there somewhere with the magnetite!) from the Deep Sands Project in Utah:

Deep_Sands_monazite

So what happened?  Why was monazite knocked from its throne?  The new light weight challenger was discovered in California.

Bastnaesite

Known by multi-spelled variations of the same name: “bastnaesite”, “bastnesite”, or “bastnäsite” is a carbonate mineral that came to prominence at Mountain Pass in California, and then gained further stardom at Bayan Obo, and then Sichuan in China. Bastnesite (I will try to give each spelling it’s share of the spotlight!) has a 75% theoretical rare earth percentage, and has a nice distribution of the LREEs. Let’s take a gander at some bastnäsite from Mountain Pass:

Mt_Pass_bastnaesite

Nice looking stuff from the Birthday claim located a short distance from the eventual minesite at Mt. Pass. One of the differences between the Mountain Pass bastnaesite and the Bayan Obo bastnaesite, is that the Mountain Pass mineral was the primary ore while Bayan Obo is a by-product of iron mining.

The Bayan Obo bastnaesite (at least, that is what they told me on the tour — my Chinese is not so good!):

Bayab_Obo_bastnaesite

Here is a shot of some bastnaesite from Thor Lake in Canada (it’s the reddish stuff):

Thor_Lake_bastnaesite

There are a number of other locations around the world looking at bastnaesite.  Thor Lake has it, a number of locations in China has it. Bear Lodge in Wyoming lists bastnaesite as one of its target minerals.

There are a number of LREE contenders, but these two minerals have dominated the LREE division of rare earths for decades. However, keep in mind that even as monazite was eventually knocked aside, bastnaesite may also be blindsided by another LREE mineral in the future.

The thrills just keep coming!

Please feel free to use the Contact page for questions or comments about rare earths.