In the media and on social networks, the ecological footprint of electric vehicles is regularly singled out. The use of “rare earths” in batteries, in particular, is the subject of debate. Between rumors, untruths and realities, let’s take stock.
Rare earths are not rare!
Rare earths (TR) are not actually earths, but metals and they are not rare! It is in fact the name of a family of 17 chemical elements from the famous Mendeleev table that all high school students have one day come to know. The most widely used are cerium (40.2% of the RE consumed), lanthanum (27.8%) and neodymium (17.6%). Be careful not to mix everything up: some other metals such as lithium and cobalt used in lithium-ion batteries are not rare earths. Although they sometimes cause controversy as well, their issues are not at all the same and we will not address them in this dossier.
Contrary to what their name might suggest, the abundance of rare earths in the earth’s crust is much greater than that of many other metals in common use: their concentration is three times greater than that of copper and twice more than that of zinc, two metals however widely used in industry and present in many goods in common use. Rare earths, for example, are 200 times more abundant on earth than gold or platinum. In other words, the exploitable reserves of rare earths are much less critical than those of many other strategic metals.
Their surname “rare earths” comes from the fact that they were discovered at the end of the 18e century in ores (hence the name “lands”), uncommon in those times and difficult to separate from each other with the techniques used at the time.
A resource distributed to the four corners of the planet
Historically the first rare earth operations in the 1940s were located in Brazil and India. After the discovery in the 1950s of large deposits in South Africa, this country was the main producer until the early 1970s when new mines were opened in the United States (Mountain Pass deposit) and in Australia in particular . And then, in the 1980s, China started producing rare earths, and practiced price dumping which ultimately led to the closure, for lack of profitability, of the other major world operations. In the early 2000s, the Chinese had a virtual monopoly on production with a market share of almost 90%. Then they decided to reduce their export quotas which caused a rise in prices and the opening or reopening of new mines in the world, in the United States (California), in Australia, in Sweden, in Brazil, in Vietnam, in Russia… Very recently (end of 2017), one of the richest deposits on the planet, that of Gakara in Burundi, came into operation. In Brazil, a German-funded pilot project, under the aegis of the University of Clausthal, is studying the possibility of recovering rare earths from tailings from phosphate farms.
Contrary to what one can read here and there in certain media and on the net, China, although still the world’s leading producer of rare earths does not hold the majority of reserves: only 30 to 40% of between them according to estimates. Brazil (with reserves estimated at 22 million tonnes, more than half of those of China), India, the United States, Canada, Greenland, Russia, Australia, Africa South, Vietnam, Thailand and several countries in East Africa, in particular, have significant deposits. The map below shows the distribution of the main rare earth deposits on the planet. As we can see, the resource is much better distributed than many others.