An investigation into the drivers of supply and demand of the rare earth element market

Peters, Luke
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Rare earth elements (REEs) consist of 17 naturally occurring elements and are split into light and heavy REEs. REEs have significant uses in high-technology and clean energy applications. The rare earth element market has been significantly affected by supply risk in the past, owing o China’s monopoly across the entire value chain. Since the last REE crisis between 2009 and 2013, the rest of the world has made little progress to bring new REE projects online. Reasons for this include environmental, financial and metallurgical constraints that face most REE projects. Currently, global REE production is approximately 170,000 tonnes. China is responsible for more than 80% of this production and is essentially the sole producer of heavy REEs such as dysprosium and terbium. Australia and the USA are the next largest producers of REEs, primarily due to the Mt Weld and Mountain Pass mining operations respectively. Although it is unclear how large the Chinese resource inventory is, due to its non-transparent reporting, it is certain that its REE endowment largely overshadows that of the rest of the world. Due to China’s supply dominance, there is still a supply risk, resulting from geological and jurisdictional scarcity, that affects the rest of the world. Drivers of REE demand include population and economic growth as well as a global desire to reduce carbon emissions in order to combat climate change, in accordance with the Paris Agreement. The expected increased future demand for certain REEs, notably neodymium (Nd), praseodymium, dysprosium (Dy) and terbium, raises concerns around supply of these metals. These elements are primarily used in clean technology applications such as permanent magnets. Permanent magnet technology is expected to grow at much higher rates than other REE applications, due to their uses in electric vehicles and wind turbines. By 2025, a total of 28,385 and 7,880 tonnes of Nd and Dy respectively will be required to satisfy the permanent magnet demand for wind turbines, electric vehicles and electric bikes alone. With forecasted production rates, this will likely result in a Nd deficit of more than 1,000 tonnes and a Dy deficit of more than 5,000 tonnes by 2025
A research report submitted to the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, University of the Witwatersrand, in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Masters in Engineering, 2020