Why are rare earth elements important? (Ask NRCan)

Rare earth elements are found in just about every type of high-tech device from smart phones to electric vehicles. In this episode of our Ask NRCan podcast, we sit down with expert Janice Zinck to discuss what rare earth elements are, why they are important and what type of research Natural Resources Canada is doing to help Canadian industry.


Joel: Welcome to “Ask NRCan,” our podcast series where we discuss a topic relating to the work that we do here at Natural Resources Canada, or NRCan for short. Today, we’re talking about rare earth elements. Now, rare earth elements are types of metals that are used in many high-tech devices like smartphones and computers.

Before we start, let me explain the format of the show to you in case you’re new to the podcast. How this works is that we’ll introduce a topic, we’ll discuss it with one of our NRCan experts, and then we’ll look to you to continue the conversation over social media. At the end of the episode, if you have any questions on today’s topic, we strongly encourage you to go to Twitter and Tweet us, using the hashtag #AskNRCan. Our expert will do his or her best to answer all relevant questions. Sounds good? Okay, let’s get started!

In the studio today, we have Janice Zinck, director of Green Mining Innovation Processing here at NRCan. Janice, how are you?

Janice: I’m great, how are you doing?

Joel: I’m great, thank you. For those of us, and by that I mean mostly me, who don’t know what rare earth elements are, could you enlighten us? Could you let us know what they are, and why they’re important?

Janice: Certainly. Rare earth elements are really a group of seventeen elements that you find on the Periodic Table, usually at the bottom of the Periodic Table: the ones that you can’t pronounce; the ones you’ve never looked at; the ones you didn’t have to memorize in high school. There are fifteen there, and there are two others that are classified as rare earth elements, but I won’t go into the Periodic Table and that part of it. They’re actually known as the “green elements” because of, as you noted before, their application in a number of areas, particularly clean technology.

So they’re known as the green elements, and they have very, very specific properties. They’re actually not even rare. The amount of rare earth elements that are present in the earth’s crust actually are greater than you find in a lot of other metals. It’s really the fact that the challenge around the rare earth elements is that they’re not concentrated — they’re not economically concentrated — so they’re very, very difficult to extract and to pull into a form that we can actually use.

So, if I give you the cookie analogy that I like to use: The chocolate chip cookie, you would have a concentration of chocolate and of sugar in that cookie. And that cookie is a lot like what we would see in a gold deposit maybe, or another metal-bearing deposit, where it’s easy to go in (relatively easy, at least) and pop out the gold because they are concentrated together. [Note: In this case, the chocolate chips represent the gold deposits, since it would be relatively simple to remove the chocolate chips from a cookie]. But the rare earths are more like you might find sugar in a sugar cookie — they’re all over the place! And so if I were to ask you to try to get the sugar out of a sugar cookie, it would be very challenging, and every grain of sugar is actually a different type of rare earth element.

So, while they are ubiquitous — they’re everywhere, they’re probably in your backyard — they’re just not in concentrations that are high enough for us to mine cost-effectively nor environmentally sensitively. It’s very challenging.

Joel: Yeah, it sounds challenging for sure. And these rare earth elements are used in clean technology but also a lot of high tech devices, right?

Janice: Absolutely, yeah. You can’t have a cellphone or a smartphone without rare earths. All the lovely colours that you have on your screen, those are the rare earths, actually. They have specific properties, and a lot of them are very much light emitters, and those emit different colours.

And so, you see them in your smartphone, you see them in your computers, but also other applications. I noted already clean tech; defence, many of the defence applications, like missiles; medical applications. They’re used because they have, as I said, very specific properties that other elements don’t have.

I know that your previous podcast was on electric vehicles, so I thought I’d just touch a bit on that. We talk about electrical vehicles, and how there’s growing interest in them. You can see that the demand is increasing, and they are becoming more and more attractive, particularly with Tesla. Just one electric vehicle — one hybrid vehicle, in fact — contains about thirty pounds of rare earth elements. That’s a lot, thirty pounds, because the amount of rare earths that are produced around the world globally is very, very small. Because you ordinarily only need a small amount of them in applications like your smartphone, you don’t produce a lot of them.

But we’re definitely seeing deficit predictions. In fact we’re in deficits already now for the supply of the rare earths. Some countries are already stockpiling these resources. So, the stability of that supply for manufacturing is really an issue of criticality. Many jurisdictions such as the U.S., the European Union and Japan have declared the rare earths as a critical element — ones that require protection and in need of more of a strategic approach in terms of securing that supply.

Joel: Really? What’s the situation in Canada? Do we mine rare earth elements? There are tons of them, right?

Janice: Yeah, our geology is such as there are a number of deposits that have been identified with rare earth elements. We do not mine rare earth elements here in Canada. We did for a small period of time back in the 1970s, really as a byproduct from the uranium industry around Elliot Lake, but we haven’t since then.

In looking at the deposits in Canada, the mineralogy or the geology is quite a bit different from where most of the rare earths are produced, which is in China. It’s very complex in order to get the rare earths out of the rocks in a way that we can do it sustainably and we make sure that we’re not harming the environment but also economically. We can’t be extracting value from a resource unless it’s cost-effective. This is why we try to apply the principles of green mining to rare earths as well, so that we can increase the value coming from them by reducing the costs, but also making sure that the practices that are being applied are environmentally sensitive and sustainable.

Joel: That actually brings me to my next question. I was kind of curious to see what we do here at NRCan regarding rare earth elements, because you’re part of the team that does research for REEs (rare earth elements). Could you let us know a little bit about the work that you do?

Janice: For sure. We started a program back in 2015 on rare earth elements — a fairly large undertaking — trying to look at extracting the value from the rare earth deposits that we have in Canada. We’re working closely with industry — it’s actually been deemed “CANMET-led, industry driven” — because it was critical for us to identify what are the gaps that industry had in their technologies in order for them to advance.

We’ve actually seen how it’s very challenging as we get into the process itself to figure out how to extract all the individual rare earths in a way that we don’t leave behind huge amounts of waste and we don’t consume lots of chemicals.

So, we have a program that we started, as I said, in 2015 that looks at the full processing cycle. Not the mining, not the parts about getting the rocks out of the ground; I think that’s fairly straightforward. It’s more in terms of when we get the rocks, as I said before, there are concentrations that are so dilute in the rock, we have to find a way of concentrating them. That’s the first step. We need to understand the minerals themselves, how they behave, but then concentrate so that we’re not trying to process huge quantities of rocks for very small quantities of rare earths.

So we use different methods, such as a combination of things like gravity, magnetism, we try to use what’s called flotation to float the rare earth elements — the minerals that contain rare earth elements — that allows us again to concentrate them. And then, once we have them in a concentrate, we then need to put them into a solution. That process involves usually two steps. Because they’re so complex, and so challenging, and they’re also very difficult to remove the rare earths, we actually have to bake them. We bake them in a very, very harsh environment. High temperature; high concentrations of, usually, acids or corrosives in order to break down the mineralogical structures so that we can release them. From there, we wash them, and we leech them with water and they go into solution. And that’s one step. But then they’re all in the solution with everything else, and now we’ve go to try to get them out, and that is another challenge in itself: How do we get them out in a way without pulling everything else out at the same time, all the impurities. And then, even more difficult, once you have them all out and they’re all very similar, how do you separate one from the other?

We have a big part of our program that looks at the environmental side of things. What are the toxicity effects, of not only the rare earths themselves, because a lot of that information isn’t available, but also a lot of the reagents or the chemicals that we’re using? We need to understand that better, and we’re working very closely with our colleagues in the rest of the Government of Canada to make sure we’re feeding that information into the policy and regulatory development side of things.

One other piece that we’re looking at is: can we extract rare earths from secondary sources, not going into primary mining. We have a lot of waste material left over from other operations — it could be from other mining operations; it could be from fertilizer manufacturing; oil sands tailings. So, we were looking at these waste products to extract the rare earths, and a lot of these things have concentrations of rare earth. It may be economically viable for processing. That’s another piece of the work that we’re doing right now.

We’re trying to look at it from various different angles to make sure that we can really fulfill those gaps that are existing for the industry, but also for the regulatory community, for the governments to make informed decisions. And we’re working closely with our policy and economic commodity specialists here in Natural Resources Canada to kind of complete the whole picture.

So at the end of our six-year program — we’re halfway through now — we’ll have that toolbox of knowledge, technologies, techniques, in order for the industry to go forth into production.

Joel: So Janice, you talked about working with industry. Are you involved in any pilot projects, or anything of the sort?

Janice: Certainly! In our researches at various stages — we have research at the bench level, and of course ideally, we want to bring that up to pilot, and ultimately demonstration.

Just a few months ago, we completed a pilot campaign on doing the concentrations. So the mineral processing part of things for one of the rare earth element companies. We were able to actually show with our results that we could reduce their capital expenditure for their mine operation by $46 million, and their annual operating expenditure by $3.5 million. We ran that through our pilot system we have here in the Booth Street complex.

Joel: What about on the regulation side? What is our involvement?

Janice: On regulations and standards, with regulations, we’re working with Environment Canada and Climate Change Canada in feeding the information on the ecotoxicity of rare earth elements into their regulatory development.

Now, on the standards, we’re working internationally under the ISO to be able to look at developing the standards necessary for the whole rare earth industry globally. And there is a major initiative right now — a new standard that is under development — involving a number of countries. Canada is leading on a number of fronts.

One of the things that we’re leading on is traceability. It’s very important right now, in terms of looking at what’s the provenance of the rare earths. We’ve talked before about — you hear in the media about blood diamonds, and issues about where cobalt is coming from. Rare earths is some of the same. Maybe not on an ethical point of view, but a lot of the rare earths are coming from illegal mining operations in China. And even China is concerned about illegal mining, and so by being able to determine the provenance of where rare earth is coming from, you can ensure that codes and standards and regulations and guidelines are being followed.

So Canada is leading on the piece for the standards leading to traceability — identifying what you need to look at. And it’s somewhat easier when you look at other things that where you can label. When you’re talking about rare earth element, usually it’s in a powder format. How do you label it? You can’t put a barcode on it any way, you can’t etch inside “This is where it’s come from,” so it’s difficult to trace the origin of a rare earth and understand where it’s coming from a process. It’s complex, but it’s a critical piece, I think, in terms of looking at the whole global environment of where rare earths are coming from.

And securing that supply is very important for a lot of jurisdictions. Recently, as you’re probably aware, the Trump administration put out an executive order looking at these critical materials, such as rare earths, and trying to ensure that there is a secure, sustainable supply of them coming from their own country. And you start looking at things like defence, missile manufacturing and defence applications, and if you are not sure where rare earths are coming from, and then the magnets are coming from, it gets very, very complicated.

So having a secure supply and understanding where rare earths come from are all part of the puzzle that we’re trying to piece together and, again, to make sure that Canada is in good position. It has the opportunity to develop its resources with all the knowledge, tools, standards, regulation guidelines and policies that are necessary.

Joel: Traceability is really interesting. Can you actually do that for something that’s in powder form?

Janice: It’s not that easy; certainly you can’t label it the same way. And that’s why it’s a discussion that is taking place on the international front and trying to get all the countries on board on what we’re proposing on how we’re going forward with this looking at traceability of the rare earths at the various stages. Because one thing is, you get it out of the ground and you’ve got to go through various processing steps, then it gets put into batteries, into magnets and things like that. So it’s very important to understand all the steps where it goes. But extremely challenging, of course.

Joel: Perfect. Thank you so much Janice.

Janice: You’re very welcome. My pleasure!

Joel: That’s awesome. Thank you.

Now is the point in the episode where we ask you to continue the conversation over social media. If you have any questions for Janice, or if you have comments on this episode, we’d like you to get on Twitter and tweet us using the hashtag #AskNRCan.

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the subject, we encourage you to visit our online magazine, Simply Science, at www.nrcan.gc.ca/simply-science and look for the podcast page on rare earth elements. We’ll have links available to any relevant material. While you’re there, take the time to browse Simply Science. We have a lot of great content for you! We have previous podcast episodes, articles and videos that showcase NRCan science and scientists.

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Well, that’s it for us today! Thank you for listening, we look forward to hearing from you, and we’ll see you next time.