University of Melbourne : Careers Guide 2012
Energy & Resources GettyImages Rare earth elements are used in many electrical devices because they are good conductors of electricity and very resistant to corrosion and demagnetisation. They are especially widely used in the fields of medical technology (for example, MRI scanning machines), clean energy and military applications, as well as in the manufacture of high-tech devices such as electric cars, computers and mobile phones. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry defines rare earth elements or rare earth metals as a group of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table – 15 lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium. All 17 elements tend to occur in similar ore deposits and have comparable chemical properties. Apart from promethium, rare earth elements are easily found in the Earth’s crust; however, they frequently occur in low concentrations and they are difficult to isolate, which means that mining and processing rare earth minerals can be long and expensive. The United States used to dominate the production of rare earth elements, but towards the end of the 1970s, the Chinese government realised how rich the country’s reserves of these elements were and supported the necessary development of mining techniques. Today, China dominates the mining of rare earth elements, producing more than 95% of the total used by manufacturers worldwide. However, some issues are affecting Chinese production. One is illegal mining – it’s Iron ore, copper and gold might grab the headlines, but the world’s thirst for computers, mobile phones, tablets and other electronics will put the spotlight on rare earth minerals. Ana Penteado Samples of rare earth compounds are displayed in the showroom at Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare- Earth Hi-Tech Co. in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China. MAKE IT HAPPEN Master of Engineering, PhD (Engineering) Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Environments FIRST DEGREE GRADUATE STUDY OPTIONS Mining for hi-tech estimated that one-third of the rare earth elements leaving China are illegal. Another issue is environmental damage – many operators do not comply with environmental standards in order to skimp on costs, and they use toxic chemicals to isolate rare earth elements. Specialists predict that China’s near monopoly on rare earth elements will end soon. This in itself creates an opportunity, not a problem. It is well established that substantial rare earth deposits exist in Canada, Brazil, India and Australia. It simply means that more advanced mining technology and processes will be needed to make mining rare earth elements more efficient and environmentally friendly to be both economically and environmentally viable in these other countries. Research and development is a critical part of finding new and viable sources of rare earth elements outside China as, after 50 years of intense exploration, Chinese reserves are declining. The mining is now relocating to areas of more difficult access, making it more costly. No mining of rare earth elements is curently underway in Australia, although sites in New South Wales and the Northern Territory are undergoing feasibility studies. Whether the future mining of rare earth elements occurs in Australia or elsewhere, the industry will create great opportunities for Australia. This is because Australia is almost the go-to nation when it comes to mining technology. Some 60% of the world’s mining computer software is developed in Australia for the global mining industry, while general exports of mining equipment, technology and services are currently valued at more than $5 billion a year.