Are Rare Earth Metals at Risk?

Report examines Chinese practices

Bill Opalka | May 26, 2011


If the clean energy economy takes off, then access to rare earth metals needed for electric vehicle batteries and wind turbines is critical. And China is the primary source.

A new report, Pike Research’s “Rare Earth Metals in the Cleantech Industry,” examines some key issues related to the materials, which the Chinese appear to have a stranglehold on current world supply.

While segments of the clean energy industry object to trade practices that have led to a formal complaint before the World Trade Organization, the rare earth metals issues has gotten less attention. That may not be the case much longer, as demand for the materials is expected to skyrocket and access may be constrained.

China’s monopoly over the global rare earth metals market has come under increased international scrutiny following recent efforts on the part of the Chinese government aimed at consolidating its domestic rare earth metal industry.  Accounting for 97 percent of worldwide rare earth metal production, China’s new export quotas, introduced in July 2010, have seen prices for rare earths skyrocket, the report says.

“The short term picture for rare earth metals in the clean technology industry will be characterized by a significant supply risk brought about by China’s strict new export quotas,” says research analyst Euan Sadden.  “This will almost certainly influence the adoption and commercialization of certain technologies across the cleantech industry.  That said, there are a number of positive initiatives that offer the potential for alleviation of this risk in the longer term.”

Rare earth metals have been identified as a troubling area of potential risk for a number of prominent clean energy technologies including wind turbines, electric vehicles, fuel cells, and energy efficient lighting.

According to the Pike Research report, demand for rare earths in the cleantech industry will reach 12,920 tons per year by 2017, up from approximately 9,000 tons annually in 2011, which could place an increased strain on global supply for these emerging applications.

Rare earth metals demand will be the highest for utilization in the manufacture of nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries for hybrid vehicles, followed by wind turbines.  Among the eight rare earth metals covered in the study, Pike forecasts that demand will be greatest for yttrium (6,088 tons annually by 2017), followed by cerium (2,441 tons) and lanthanum (1,867 tons).  The need for other rare earth metals such as neodymium, praseodymium, europium, terbium, and dysprosium will be somewhat smaller, but still significant portions of the overall mix.

Potential sources of alternative supplies do exist and markets are responding to the high price climate. Mining projects outside of China, like in Mountain pass, California, are coming online. Other companies, particularly in Japan, are exploring the viability of recycling rare earth materials and developing technologies that require less of them.

At any rate, the supply risks are real and the cleantech industry needs to find ways to respond.

The editorial staff at is passionate about exchanging ideas and dedicated to promoting ongoing conversation about renewables and sustainable energy issues. We invite you to join and contribute to our online community. If you have an idea for an article or editorial contribution, please contact me via email,, or phone, 860.633.0090.

Related Topics


AEC Div of Tech Info Says Rare Earths Aren't Rare

 A quote from literature published back in the '60s by US Govt sources is:

 "The name rare earths is actually a misnomer for these elements are neither rare nor earths. They are metals, and they are quite abundant. Cerium, which is the most abundant, ranks 28th in abundances of the naturally occurring elements and is more plentiful than beryllium, cobalt, germanium, lead, tin, or uranium. The least abundant naturally occurring rare earth, thulium, is more plentiful than cadmium, gold, iodine, mercury, platinum, or silver. Indeed, 25% of the elements are scarcer than thulium."

Author: Karl A. Gschneidner, Jr., then Assoc Prof in Dept of Metallurgy of Iowa State Univ. The rare earths presented some favorable properties as nuclear reactor control rods and as isotopes. It is interesting and sometimes dismaying how readily superficialities are taken as gospel by the media and public especially in energy matters. Tony Chessick, IntegEner-W, Tehachapi, CA


add uranium?

Monday November 8, 2010 06:09

Hello Mr Leopold, Mr Johnson, and Ms Yoshida,

Uranium supply for production of electricity may be a far more serious problem than rare earth production? "Never overlook the oblivious." cautions Notos.

Rare earth product applications supposes electricity for power.

US electricity is generated from 57% coal, 17% natural gas, 20% nuclear and 6% hydro, we googled on Internet.

Uranium supply Internet posts warn

According to the Times, China's "civilian nuclear power industry" (and rest assured there's a Chinese military nuclear power industry as well) has 11 operating reactors, with as many as 10 new reactors per year planned for the next 15 years. That's 150 new reactors just in China.

So where will the world nuclear industry obtain the uranium fuel for all these new reactors? That's a darn good question. Just in the US, annual uranium use for the nuclear power industry is about 55 million pounds. The US produces less than 4 million pounds of this fuel - about 7% - and imports the rest.


Uranium supply shortage is real, and "Peak Uranium" is harder to deny than "Peak Oil".This year's world uranium mine output could or might attain 55000 tons, but demand will be about 68000 tons. It is difficult to imagine what would happen to world oil, coal or gas prices if their world supply was 20% lower than their world demand.

according to Byron King and Andrew McKillop.