What are a Rare Earth Minerals? Why are they strategically important? Discuss  their uses from strategic, developmental and environmental perspective (15 Marks)

Mentors Comments:

China has threatened to curb the export of rare earth minerals to the US as the trade war between the world’s two largest economies escalates, The Asian country is the world’s largest producer and consumer of rare earth minerals. 

In a few introductory lines define Rare earth minerals – Rare earth elements (REE) are a group of seventeen chemical elements that occur together in the periodic table, 15 lanthanides (Z=57 through 71), Scandium and Yttrium.

Discuss the following aspects in the answer:

  • What are rare earth minerals? Why are they called rare earth minerals?
  • What is the significance of Rare Earth Elements (REE)?
  • Discuss its utility in terms of – defense, strategy environment, etc.
  • Global Uses and Production of Rare Earth Elements
  • What are the issues involved?
  • Aspect of China? – why and what is the turf?

Conclude with their significance and what needs to be done to overcome the challenges involved therein.

Answer:

The rare earth minerals (REM) are a set of seventeen metallic elements. These include the fifteen lanthanides on the periodic table in addition to scandium and yttrium that show similar physical and chemical properties to the lanthanides. The REMs have unique catalytic, metallurgical, nuclear, electrical, magnetic and luminescent properties. While named ‘rare earth’, they are in fact not that rare and are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust

Strategic importance of REMs:

  • They have distinctive electrical, metallurgical, catalytic, nuclear, magnetic and luminescent properties.
  • They are strategically very important due to their use of emerging and diverse technologies that cater to the needs of current society.
  • Its usage range from daily use (e.g., lighter flints, glass polishing mediums, car alternators) to high-end technology (lasers, magnets, batteries, fiber-optic telecommunication cables).
  • Even futuristic technologies need these REMs (For example high-temperature superconductivity, safe storage and transport of hydrogen for a post-hydrocarbon economy, environmental global warming and energy efficiency issues).
  • The global demand for REMs has increased significantly in line with its expansion into high-end technology, environment, and economic areas.
  • They are extremely important for many modern technologies, including consumer electronics, computers, and networks, communications, clean energy, advanced transportation, health care, environmental mitigation, national defense, etc.
  • Due to their unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties, they help in technologies perform with reduced weight, reduced emissions, and energy consumption; therefore give them greater efficiency, performance, miniaturization, speed, durability, and thermal stability.

Applications of REMs in various fields:

  • Electronics: Television screens, computers, cell phones, silicon chips, monitor displays, long-life rechargeable batteries, camera lenses, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), baggage scanners, marine propulsion systems.
  • Defense Sector: Rare earth elements play an essential role in our national defense. The military uses night-vision goggles, precision-guided weapons, communications equipment, GPS equipment, batteries, and other defense electronics. These give the United States military an enormous advantage. Rare earth metals are key ingredients for making the very hard alloys used in armored vehicles and projectiles that shatter upon impact.
  • Renewable Energy: Solar panels, Hybrid automobiles, wind turbines, next-generation rechargeable batteries, bio-fuel catalysts.
  • Manufacturing: High strength magnets, metal alloys, stress gauges, ceramic pigments, colorants in glassware, chemical oxidizing agent, polishing powders, plastics creation, as additives for strengthening other metals, automotive catalytic converters
  • Medical Science: Portable x-ray machines, x-ray tubes, magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) contrast agents, nuclear medicine imaging, cancer treatment applications, and for genetic screening tests, medical and dental lasers.
  • Technology: Lasers, optical glass, fiber optics, masers, radar detection devices, nuclear fuel rods, mercury-vapor lamps, highly reflective glass, computer memory, nuclear batteries, high-temperature superconductors.

However, the extraction of REMs is one of the most environmentally negative and toxic generating of all mining practices. Disproportionate rare earth mining has resulted in landslides, clogged rivers, environmental pollution emergencies, and even major accidents and disasters, causing great damage to people’s safety and health and the ecological environment.

The ‘Make in India’ program whose goal is to make India a manufacturing economy will need REMs in huge amounts. Although India is among the top five nations with reserves of rare-earth minerals, there is no required technology to extract in an environmentally sustainable way. Thus, India will need to firm up diplomatic trade channels and long-term supply contracts. There is also a need to develop suitable technologies, promote Research and Development to tap the REM.

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