With only a handful of countries in the whole world mining and refining them and Mainland China planning to reduce their export quotas for 2011, will rare earth metals soon become precious metals?
By: Ringo Bones
Though Paris Hilton has yet to brag about her brand-new 22-karat dysprosium bracelet (or will it be a 22-karat holmium bracelet?) rare earth metal prices will surely rise and become much rarer because the People’s Republic of China had already decided back in January 6, 2011 to cut their rare earth metal export quotas by 35% for the whole of 2011. Will this turn of events inadvertently turn rare earth elements into precious metals?
The Beijing government’s decision to reduce their rare earth metal export quotas instantly posed a real concern for Japan’s high-tech manufacturing firms since electric motors of hybrid cars and other high-tech consumer items like video monitors are very dependent on rare earth metals in their construction and manufacture. The Mainland Chinese rare earth export quota cut had even stepped-up Japan’s plans to explore the mining potential of the seabed of their territorial waters for rare earth elements.
As a very important reiteration, the elements commonly referred to as “rare earths” are neither rare nor earths. These soft and malleable metals only became commercially rare due to the People’s Republic of China flexing their newfound geopolitical clout by controlling their own export quotas. Cerium, the most abundant, is slightly more plentiful than tin and lead. While thulium – the scarcest of the rare earth elements – is only slightly rarer than iodine. The “earth” misnomer arose from the fact that the first source of the elements during their discovery is from the oxides of the elements themselves.
As the current textbook definition of precious metals – when pertaining to the “top three” like gold, silver and platinum – primarily revolves around their beauty, their rarity and high demand that makes them pricey are just incidentally brought upon by economics. While platinum’s usefulness as a very important chemical catalyst might make it as one of the “traditional” precious metals that has a kinship with the rare earth metals in terms of industrial use, rare earth metals – appearance-wise – have never been and probably never will be “attractive enough” to have lend themselves for jewelry use. Probably due to their rather "mediocre" gray-silver sheen.
And it does deserve worthy of a mention that three of the rare earth elements – europium, lanthanum and yttrium – will surely never be used as a fashionably drab jewelry because chemically pure europium, lanthanum and yttrium will corrode within a few hours upon exposure to our oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. Chemically pure specimens of europium, lanthanum and yttrium are often available as a laboratory curiosity as a specimen displayed and sealed in a glass container filled with argon gas. So will rare earth metals ever become precious metals? In price maybe, but don’t count on them winding up as part of Paris Hilton’s bling anytime soon.