Rare Earths Provide Ontario With a Rare Economic Opportunity

This article was provided by the Ontario Mining Association (OMA), an organization that was established in 1920 to represent the mining industry of the province.

The burgeoning global markets and growing high-tech applications for rare earth elements provides Ontario with an opportunity to expand its mining – and manufacturing — sectors.  The 17 rare earth elements with strange sounding names are essential to the production of items such as permanent magnets, rechargeable batteries, electric and hydrogen vehicles, lasers and the miniaturization of electronic devices among others. 

As markets and applications expand, supply is strained.  Worldwide demand for these elements is expected to outstrip supply by 40,000 tonnes annually unless new sources are developed.  The Ontario Mineral Deposit Inventory documents more than 200 known rare element and rare earth element mineral occurrences across the province.   

The Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry says rare element and rare earth element minerals are among the non-traditional metals being targeted for exploration in Ontario.  Areas with rare earth development potential in the province would include Bancroft, Elliot Lake, Hearst, Kenora, Marathon and Moosonee.

A hybrid car contains about 20 kilograms of rare earth elements.  Demand in 2010 was forecast at 150,000 tonnes with longer range projections indicating a demand of 2 million tonnes for hybrid, electric and hydrogen vehicles by 2025.

Future supply problems for these strategic elements are being compounded by China.  At the moment, it produces about 95% of global supply and has 37% of proven reserves.  China recently announced it is cutting its rare earth exports by 35% in 2011, which follows hot on the heels of export reduction cuts in the second half of 2010. 

Smart phones, hybrid cars, guided missiles, coloured televisions, ceramics, lasers, superconductors, high-tech magnets, medical diagnostic devices and numerous other applications all contain rare earth elements.  A rare earth mineral sector could form the foundation for new manufacturing in Ontario for green and futuristic products.

In effect, rare earth is a bit of a misnomer for these elements on the periodic table.  Rare earth elements are actually relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust.  However, because of their geochemical characteristics, they are generally dispersed and are not always found in concentrated and economically recoverable forms.

The first rare earth elements yttrium and cerium were identified in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  The rarest of these, promethium, was not identified until 1945.  Because of market dominance of one producer and contract secrecy, these commodity prices are hard to come by easily and their economics is as complex as their chemistry.  However, glimpses of transactions show the heaviest rare earth element lutetium selling for $2,400 per kilogram, samarium for $58 per kilogram, europium for $1,120 per kilogram and yttrium for $50 per kilogram.

Nothing comes easy in mining and rare earth occurrences can’t become mines overnight even if economics support the case.  However, with Ontario’s high potential and expansive geological endowment, there appears to be a realistic opportunity to expand the province’s mining sector with an ability to support a manufacturing resurgence of green products locally. 

Prior to the opening of De Beers Canada’s Victor Mine in 2008 near Attawapiskat, there was no diamond production in Ontario.  Now the province has more diamond projects than any other jurisdiction in Canada, 131 ranging from production to grass roots exploration.  It can be done.

We may want to become a little more familiar with the names of 17 rare earth elements:– Scandium, Yttrium, Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Promethium, Samarium, Europium, Gadolinium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium, Thulium, Yterrbium and Lutetium.

Perhaps “dysprosium” says it best.  The name for this element is from the Greek “dysprositos” which means “hard to get.”