What Are Rare Earth Elements and Their Importance?

by Saheli Bakshi5 months ago
Picture What Are Rare Earth Elements and Their Importance?

The past few decades have witnessed some phenomenal discoveries that have made our day-to-day life a lot easier. Examples are smartphones that fit into your pocket, cars that run on electricity, night-vision goggles, and much more. However, the existence of all such scientific advancements has been possible only because of rare earth elements.

But what are the “rare earth elements”? Are they minerals, ores, or metals? Well, it is all of the above and more. Although the name suggests being “rare,” all of us use them in some form or another. From our phones to our sophisticated cars, most of our modern innovations need these elements to function seamlessly. Let’s dig a bit deeper to discover some lesser-known facts about rare earth elements.

What Are Rare Earth Elements and Their Properties?

Rare Earth Elements

Rare earth elements are a group of minerals that have recently captured the world’s attention due to their extraordinary properties. Often referred to as “lanthanides,” they are a group of 17 elements located at the bottom of the periodic table. This group mainly comprises the 15 lanthanides from lanthanum (La) to lutetium (Lu). The group includes two other non-lanthanide elements, scandium (Sc) and yttrium (Y), since they exhibit similar properties.


These elements share several common properties, such as similar chemical behavior, the ability to form compounds, and unique magnetic and optical properties. All of them are metals and thus have common metallic properties such as luster, malleability, and electrical conductivity. They all have a crystalline structure, except for europium, which feels and looks very similar to lead.

17 rare earth elements
17 Rare Earth Elements.

These elements have high boiling and melting points, starting from 798 °C, which keeps increasing rapidly with increasing their atomic number. They also have strong magnetic and paramagnetic properties. This means they are attracted to a magnetic field when placed within one. They have the ability to create strong chemical bonds, which makes them very reactive. This enables them to easily form compounds with other elements as well.


Are Rare Earth Elements Really “Rare”?

Rare elements
Rare elements. Image Credit: Peggy Greb, US department of agriculture/Wikimedia,org

Though their name suggests being rare in presence, they are, on the contrary, quite abundant on Earth. Even the least abundant of them all, Thulium and Leutetium, each has 200 times more concentration on Earth’s crust than gold.


The tale of why they are called “rare earth elements” goes back to 1788 when a miner discovered an unusual black rock mixed with other minerals in a mine in Sweden. It was termed “rare,” as no one had seen it before. “Earth”’ was a common moniker used by geologists back then to refer to any acid-soluble rock.

Solid state neodymium, a magnetic chemical element, represented with the symbol ‘Nd’.

However, they are “rare” in terms of their concentration and distribution. Their extraction and purification process is quite challenging and costly since they are primarily found in low concentrations. The lanthanides usually occur together in nature or in association with other minerals. Complete separation of the elements in viable quantities is, therefore, a complex, time-consuming process that is difficult to achieve.

Being mineral resources, the majority of rare earth elements are unevenly scattered around the world, with a significant portion of the global supply coming from China. Starting with just 38% of the world’s total production in 1993, China today has a monopoly over 90% of the global supply.


Why Are they so Valuable if they Are Not That Rare?

Uses Of Rare Earth Elements
Uses Of Rare Earth Elements. Image Credit: Molycrop.INC

Rare earth elements (REEs) are prized for a multitude of reasons, primarily due to the critical role they play in various industries. The ease of modern-day, high-tech gadgets wouldn’t be possible without them. Their presence may not be significant in the tools and gadgets by weight or volume, but they are indispensable for their functioning.


Most rechargeable batteries in our portable electronic devices, from cell phones and cameras to electric vehicles, have REEs in them. Their fluorescent property makes possible the LED and fluorescent lighting and also the vivid and colorful displays we see on televisions and computer screens.

The demand for rare earth elements will shoot higher in the future with greater awareness of climate change, environmental impact, and energy efficiency.

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