Rare earth elements have always lived up to their name – rare. However, within this classification, there are eight rare earths that are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, making them more accessible for mining than some of their counterparts. In this blog post, we’ll explore these fascinating elements, their properties, and why they are considered rare despite their abundance.
Cerium is the most abundant rare earth element, and it is more common in the Earth’s crust than copper or lead. Despite this abundance, cerium is still considered “rare” due to its dispersion and difficulty in extracting it in concentrated forms. It is essential for a variety of applications, from catalysts in automotive exhaust systems to glass polishing.
Lanthanum is the second most abundant rare earth element and is often found alongside cerium. It has various industrial applications, including in the production of rechargeable batteries, camera lenses, and even in petroleum refining. Lanthanum is abundant but challenging to extract in high concentrations.
Neodymium is widely known for its use in powerful magnets, such as those found in headphones and electric vehicle motors. While it is more accessible than some other rare earths, mining and processing neodymium still pose significant challenges due to its low natural concentrations.
Praseodymium is another abundant rare earth element, frequently found alongside neodymium. It is crucial for high-strength alloys and magnetic materials, yet it remains “rare” due to the challenges associated with extracting and refining it.
Samarium is used in specialized magnets, nuclear reactors, and even in the treatment of certain cancers. While not as rare as some of its counterparts, samarium still requires careful extraction and refining processes.
Europium is essential in the manufacturing of color television screens and energy-efficient lighting. Despite being more abundant than some other rare earths, its specialized applications make it relatively rare in minable concentrations.
Gadolinium is a critical component in the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) contrast agents. It is relatively abundant, but its importance in the medical field keeps it in demand, making it valuable.
Terbium is used in the production of color phosphors for televisions and computer screens, as well as in certain types of energy-efficient lighting. Although more abundant than some rare earths, it remains challenging to mine and refine.
Why Are These Elements Rare?
The rarity of these abundant rare earth elements lies in their distribution and the difficulty in extracting them in concentrated forms. Unlike more common elements like iron or aluminum, rare earths are dispersed throughout the Earth’s crust and are often found mixed with other minerals, making extraction complex and costly.
Furthermore, the environmental impact of rare earth mining and processing has led to stricter regulations, making it essential for mining companies to employ sustainable and responsible practices.
While these eight rare earth elements may be relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust compared to their scarcer counterparts, their rarity lies in the challenges associated with mining, refining, and processing them. The demand for these elements continues to grow in various industries, from electronics to healthcare, highlighting the importance of responsible mining practices and the need for ongoing research into alternative sources and recycling methods. As we look to the future, understanding and managing these rare resources will be crucial for sustaining our modern way of life.