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The rare earths ‘basket problem’ is intensifying

The transition to a green economy represents a major opportunity for rare earths demand in the coming decades, with so-called ‘magnet rare earths’ – especially neodymium (Nd) and praseodymium (Pr) – found in a wide range of green applications: from offshore wind turbines, to electric vehicle powertrains.

The rare earths ‘basket problem’ is intensifying (PRNewsfoto/CRU)

But as a bundle of some seventeen rare earths naturally occur together in fairly fixed proportions within their orebodies, miners will inevitably create surging oversupply of several other elements in their race to ratchet up production of Nd and Pr. Careful consideration must therefore be given to the varying demand prospects of each of these elements when evaluating the economic feasibility of each mining project, as not all rare earths are likely to benefit from the shift to a sustainable world economy.

An introduction to the ‘basket problem’

Imagine you are the strategic manager of a hypothetical mining operation exploiting an orebody that comprises of two fictional minerals – say, phostlite and cavorite – in equal quantities. The mine is the only one of its kind in the world and supplies the entire world’s demand for both minerals. Then, by some miracle, a new type of commercial fusion technology is invented which relies heavily on cavorite, massively increasing demand for the element; but by contrast, demand for phostlite remains constant.

As a miner you cannot preferentially mine cavorite – the two minerals are fused together within the orebody. So, do you choose to increase mining throughput in order to meet demand for cavorite, while simultaneously pushing the market for phostlite into massive oversupply and crashing the price? Or do you keep mining output steady to preserve prices for phostlite, thereby creating a huge deficit of cavorite? How do you balance these two effects?

This is the essence of the “basket problem”, an issue which has plagued the rare earth mining sector in recent years. The rare earth elements (REE) consist of the 15 lanthanide elements, with atomic numbers 57 to 71, with the addition of yttrium and in some cases scandium, for a grand total of 17 elements. They are considered as a group because they are found, mined and processed together, up to the stage of a rare earth oxide (REO) concentrate. Then, due to their similar physical and chemical properties, they must be painstakingly and expensively separated via multi-stage solvent extraction into the individual elements for their different end uses.

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