Why we need REE
Historically the material group with the highest societal need is the metals. Many of them exist in abundance and in addition, for base metals like iron, copper etc., good recycling procedures exists.
However, even if this recycling was even more effective it would still not meet the demand. In Europe EU launched the EU Raw Materials Initiative. In the results of this study the Rare Earth Elements were identified as being highly relevant for societal needs while there exists a significant risk of supply.
There is a variety of applications for the REE in different industries using a variation of chemical forms of the REE e.g. metals, oxides, chlorides and alloys. The variety of products are ranging from e.g. super magnets in electrical engines in cars and generators in wind turbines, computer hard drives, fluorescent lights, flat screens for computers and TVs, batteries for a variety of applications like NiHM batteries in hybrid electric cars and catalysts for the automotive end petroleum industry among many more. In addition new products for the energy sector like e.g. fuel cells and hydrogen storage also need REE to work properly. Today the world demand for REE in oxide form is about 134 000 tons per year and the global production is about 124 000 tons per year. This demand is expected to rise significantly over the next decade by almost 100% resulting in a critical shortage of e.g. Pr, Nd, Tb and Dy.
The totally dominating producer of REE is China with an expected increase in production up to 160 000 tons per year not meeting the actual required need. In addition the monopolisation of production and refining of the REE by China also puts a significant political pressure into the REE subject. In accordance with this the China Ministry of Commerce has decided that most REE are to be regarded as strategic commodities and their general use and export will need to be controlled. This global uncertainty in the accessibility of REE and the great development of Chinese industry to produce significant amount of energy using wind turbines as well as the desire to be world leading in green car technology definitively puts the availability of REE in e.g. Europe in question. Currently Europe imports about 14% of the total REE production of China.