Rare earths are used in energy effiecient lightbulbs. Photo from iStock.
Developing Australia's rare earths industry
We’re supporting the development of Australia’s rare earths industry through research that addresses exploration, mining, processing, lifecycle analysis, recycling strategies and industrial uses.
10 September 2012 | Updated 21 September 2012
What are rare earths?
Rare earths are a group of chemically similar metals that are important in high-technology and green energy applications such as lasers, wind turbines, fluorescent and LED lighting, computer hard disks, TV screens and CAT scanners.
Each element is used for a different purpose and some are rarer than others. They are generally split into two groups – ‘light rare earths’ (lanthanides – from Lanthanum to Samarium) and ‘heavy rare earths’ ( the remainder of the lanthanides and Yttrium).
In recent years demand for the less abundant heavy rare earths has increased due to the increased use of Dysprosium in high performance magnets (e.g. hybrid cars), and Yttrium, Europium and Terbium in fluorescent lighting phosphors (low energy lighting).
World supply and demand
World demand for rare earths was limited until the mid-1980s, when demand for light rare earths (chiefly Cerium, Lanthanum and Neodymium) started to grow. This increase in demand coincided with the discovery of large reserves in China and the subsequent growth of the Chinese rare earths industry, but also the decline of exploration and production in the rest of the world.
In the mid-1990s China produced over 95 per cent of world supply, but demand for heavy rare earth (a relatively minor proportion of China’s total rare earth trade) increased considerably. Even taking into account Chinese supply, many analysts predict that by 2015, there will be a world shortage of one light rare earth and four key heavy rare earths.
Australia’s rare earths
Rare earths critical to the world’s green energy future due to their use in low-energy lighting and low-weight high-power magnets required for electric vehicles and wind turbines are in short supply.
In Australia, new rare earth deposits are still being discovered and it is estimated we have around 6 per cent of the world’s deposits. Most Australian ores have a greater proportion of heavy rare earths compared to those in many other countries and there are a number of major rare earth operations in advanced stages of design or commission. Australia also has a wealth of world-class expertise in rare earth processing.
We have expertise in exploration, process chemistry and the design of magnet alloys and high efficiency rare earth motors.
Rare earths are commonly found in close proximity to radioactive minerals and we have expertise in dealing with issues that arise from this proximity.
We are developing lower impact methods to extract rare earths from their ores and more targeted separation technologies. We are also assisting Australian and overseas rare earths companies to develop their process flowsheets.
Our characterisation and mineralogy capabilities allow us to gain in-depth understanding of process options from a very early stage. We have pilot plant capabilities for a variety of unit operations used in rare earth refining including:
- beneficiation of ores
- ‘cracking’ and leaching technologies
- traditional double-salt separations
- sophisticated solvent extraction purification schemes.
We are also involved in lifecycle analysis and recycling strategies for these valuable metals.
Find out more about rare earths. [pdf 422KB]