OTTAWA — Canada is quietly staking its claim to being a global leader in a growing multibillion-dollar industry largely unknown to most Canadians but deemed by the government as “critical” to the country’s economy.
Canadian extractive companies, in collaboration with the federal government and other groups, have launched more than 200 exploration projects targeting what are called rare earth elements (REE).
These potentially lucrative rare earths — which include the 15 lanthanide metals on the periodic table plus scandium and yttrium — are increasingly sought after by several major industries for manufacturing their products.
The rare earth elements are split into “light” or “heavy” depending on their atomic number. Rare earths, especially the “heavy” ones, are considered to be critical for manufacturing new technology, clean energy, aerospace, automotive, defence and many other industrial products because of their luminous, magnetic, catalytic and other characteristics.
For example, the materials have become imperative for wind turbines, hybrid and electric cars, cellphones, laptops, LCD screens, medical imaging equipment, rechargeable batteries and many other products.
Canadian deposits often contain much higher proportions of the valuable “heavy” rare earths, meaning Canada is poised to capitalize on extracting rare earth elements, say briefing notes prepared for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver as part of last summer’s cabinet shuffle.
“Rare earth elements (REE) have been categorized by the government as being critical to Canada’s economy,” say the briefing notes, titled “Secret” and obtained by Postmedia News under access to information legislation.
“Canada could become a significant producer of rare earths over the medium term.”
Rare earths actually aren’t that rare. They are abundant around the world, but very rarely in concentrations that are economically recoverable.
A group of exploration companies, in cooperation with Natural Resources Canada, research centres and other partners, have just established the Canadian Rare Earth Elements Network — an industry-led group whose aim is to secure 20 per cent of the global supply market for critical rare earth products by 2018.
The critical rare earth elements especially sought after by industry — and defined by some governments as crucial — include europium, terbium, dysprosium, yttrium and neodymium.
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