Rare Earths Steady Even as Green, Tech Industries Become More Reliant on Them

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Our Rare Earths MMI charted another flat month, still mired in the low range we have seen all year for the trace elements that power batteries, magnets, flat screens and nearly all of the personal gadgets we use today.

Rare-Earths_Chart_December-2015_FNL

It’s not that rare earths don’t have strong demand, it’s that many rare metals are traded clandestinely in finite amounts and difficult to track. Manufacturers are also constantly discovering new ways to become more efficient with rare earth metals, using less in each product.

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Air conditioners produced with rare earths are more efficient, but most US manufacturers will use older technologies rather than splurge on materials that are hard to source and difficult to build a sustainable supply chain of.

Supply Chain Issues

There’s also the issue that most are not mined purely to be sold by themselves. They are byproducts of more lucratively mined metals such as copper. This means that even if prices of a rare metal were to skyrocket, companies often have little economic incentive to produce them if it means sacrificing some base metal production or investing in new processing equipment, according to David Abraham, author of “The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, And the Struggle For a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age.”

Still, every time we turn around rare earths are in more products, not less. The rare earth scandium is a key strengthening agent in Airbus’ new A320 interior partition, a weblike, 3D-printed part that will be in every new A320 once it passes a final test this month.

New Products

Airbus and development partner Autodesk are using scandium as a strengthening agent to make the partition, made of aluminum and magnesium, as strong as titanium. It performs a similar function for the aluminum partition as niobium provides for steel.

Partition cover can be customized for the individual airline and its branding. Strong but able to be used by anyone. Source: Airbus

The new ‘bionic’ additive manufactured partition for the Airbus A320 gets its strenght from Scandium. Source: Airbus

While the bearish market is dragging down all commodities, and rare earths is certainly no exception, we’re not worried about the future of the market, be for alloying metals, magnets, batteries of their other end uses.

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The bigger concern is that US companies will not be able to compete at these prices and China will continue to dominate the market.

Actual Rare Earths Prices

Chinese neodymium saw a big drop this month as it fell from $49,857.55 a metric ton in November to $49,237.98 per mt this month, a plunge of 1.2%. Yttria fell from $4,431.78 per mt in November to $4,376.71 per mt this month, a drop of 1.2%. Chinese cerium oxide fell from $1,693.57 in November to $1,672.53, another fall of 1.2%.

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