What are ‘rare earth’ elements and why are they important?

They are in your smartphone, electric vehicles and used widely in renewable energy technology. But what exactly are ‘rare earth’ elements and just how rare are they?

Rare earth elements are a collection of 17 elements on the periodic table. They include the group known as lanthanides, plus two honorary members, scandium and yttrium, that have similar characteristics.

“There’s a whole row on the periodic table that’s made up of these elements and they all have amazing properties,” Professor John Mavrogenes says.

“Oddly enough, they are not very rare at all. They are similar in abundance to lead and copper. But what’s more important is an element’s propensity to form large high-grade deposits and where these deposits are located.

“When it comes to rare earths, most come from just two huge deposits — the largest of which is in China. This explains why we consider them ‘critical’, because we depend so much on one country to keep up our supplies.”


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