5 Facts: Rare Earth Elements

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Jamaicans woke up in mid-January to the news that we have potentially been sitting on a multi-billion dollar mineral mine: rare earth elements (REEs), which are key ingredients in the manufacturing of cell phones, wind turbines and gas-saving cars, had been discovered in the island’s bauxite waste.

Excitement abounded following the announcement as many envisioned the establishment of a lucrative new industry that could help to ease the country’s financial burdens. There have been no updates on the status of the pilot plant at Hope Gardens since ground was broken in February, but interest is still strong. This Five Facts Friday, we share some key information about REEs:

  1. Nine REEs have been identified in Jamaica’s ‘red mud.’ These are lanthanum (La), cerium (Ce),  samarium (Sm), europium (Eu), dysprosium (Dy), ytterbium (Yb), lutetium (Lu), scandium (Sc) and yttrium (Y).
  2. Rare earth minerals  are silver, silvery-white or grey metals. They have a high lustre, but tarnish readily in air. The metals also have high electrical conductivity. They share many common properties, which makes it difficult to separate or even distinguish from each other.
  3. REEs help to make our technological devices work. Europium is responsible for the red in your colour tv, as well as LED lights, which are an energy efficient alternative to both incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs. Additionally, we have the small, light magnets made from neodymium to thank for items such as iPods, headphones and portable hard drives.
  4. REEs are used in everyday items such as lighter flints, glass polishing mediums and car alternators, as well as high-technology applications such as lasers, magnets, batteries and fibre-optic telecommunication cables.
  5. Global sources of REEs are Australia, which has about one third of the world’s known supply; China, which supplies more than 92 per cent of the world’s requirements while consuming 60 per cent of the world’s production; the USA, which has a modst supply; Greenland; Russia; Canada and Japan.

For more information, read this account from Professor The Hon. Gerald Lalor, OJ, founder of the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences (ICENS) at The University of The West Indies, Mona.