Are rare earth elements actually rare?

Debunking the myth and predicting the future of REEs

A headshot of Gavin Mudd, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia

Gavin Mudd, associate professor of environmental engineering at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia — Photo courtesy Gavin Mudd

The demand for rare earth elements (REEs) has increased and will only continue to increase over the years. These important elements are used in our daily technology like cell phones and computers. They are also necessary for the transition to electric cars and clean energy alternatives.

However, although the demand is larger as we search for alternatives, REEs are actually improperly coined “rare.” Gavin Mudd, associate professor of environmental engineering at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, is known as a global expert on REEs as well as the environmental impacts and sustainability of mining.

“They were given the moniker rare in the earlier days of science, not understanding them,” Mudd said. “In a geological sense, they certainly aren’t rare. They just happen to be called that because of an accident in the history of science.”

The challenge of REEs

We now know that REEs aren’t a single element but a group of unusual elements. Because they are a family of similar elements, they are difficult to separate. They can be challenging to extract and refine—either they are not feasible to extract with the current market or the environmental impact is too risky.

For starters, “the mining of rare earth always involves a degree of radioactive waste and it has to be managed as such. That’s something the rare earth industries often struggled with in the past,” Mudd said. Workers’ health and radiation exposure for the surrounding areas are always a risk. There are ways to manage these challenges, but companies need to manage them properly.

Some countries currently mining REEs have ignored the safety concerns, keeping these minerals at a relatively low cost. Ultimately, this will be another challenge to overcome. “How do you transition from the scenario where we have cheap rare earth resources from China to more extensive but well-managed rare earth production in China and elsewhere? People are used to certain prices of rare earths,” said Mudd.

Join the discussion at RFG2018

Mudd will be leading a handful of discussions at the Resources for Future Generations Conference (RFG2018) in Vancouver this June. In a plenary talk, he will lay out the entire field of issues: “the big picture, the trends, the resources we have and where we have a lack of data,” he said. “I will also be giving a keynote talk on responsible mining and the ethics behind it, and how that relates to sustainable development.”

These discussions are meant to bring everyone affected together to search for a solution. What will the future of mining REEs look like? “The RFG conference is going to be a great venue to put these issues together. We will look at the whole nexus between energy, water, minerals and so on because the pollution issue is something we will have to deal with,” Mudd said. One point he will particularly stress is that there’s no shortage of REEs. Specifically, there is also no shortage of REEs on land.

Debunking deep-sea myths

“One of the myths people put out is that we are running out of resources on land,” he said, “and it’s an absolute myth.” After years of studying minerals, Mudd hopes to make it clear that “we are not running out of resources on land of every metal I’ve ever looked at.” There are issues like the grade or depth of the deposit, and the environmental risks are becoming more prevalent, but new deposits are discovered all the time.

Some argue that we need to accept deep-sea mining as the future of REEs, but comparing the risk impact of sea to land is a complicated task. “Some people argue that deep sea is better, but I don’t think that their case has been made,” said Mudd. The REE deposits that have been discovered are far deeper than current technology allows, that is, they are impossible to mine at this time.

Discussing sustainable mining

Responsible, sustainable mining becomes the most important topic of discussion. “As a society we will need to work out how we look at responsible mining,” said Mudd. “How do we mine in the future?” At RFG2018, Muff hopes to address community concerns and waste cleanup, so we don’t leave the responsibility to future generations. “It’s making sure we understand the different sources and their relative impact,” he said.

Together, society should be able to weigh the benefits with the risks and explore ways to manage the challenges. “We are not running out—we can meet our resource needs of the future—but those resources come at some cost,” Mudd said. “They are complex conversations we need to have. That for me is the great hope for RFG2018. We know this is a complex process, but we want everyone involved in that dialogue.”

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