Rare Earths

The rare earth elements (REE) are a group of 17 metals that comprise the lanthanide series of elements lanthanum (La), cerium (Ce), praseodymium (Pr), neodymium (Nd), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), terbium (Tb), dysprosium (Dy), holmium (Ho), erbium (Er), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb) and lutetium (Lu) in addition to scandium (Sc) and yttrium (Y), which show similar physical and chemical properties to the lanthanides. Rare earth elements are a relatively abundant group of elements that range in crustal abundance from cerium at 60 parts per million (ppm) to lutetium at 0.5 ppm. The REE have unique catalytic, metallurgical, nuclear, electrical, magnetic and luminescent properties. Their strategic importance is indicated by their use in emerging and diverse technologies that are becoming increasingly more significant in today's society. Applications range from routine (e.g., lighter flints, glass polishing mediums, car alternators) to high technology (lasers, magnets, batteries, fibre-optic telecommunication cables) and those with futuristic purposes (high-temperature superconductivity, safe storage and transport of hydrogen for a post-hydrocarbon economy, environmental global warming and energy efficiency issues). Over the past two decades, the global demand for REE has increased significantly in line with their expansion into high-end technological, environmental and economic environments.

The group of REE is variously, and inconsistently, reported by companies as light REE consisting of La, Ce, Pr, Nd and, sometimes, Sm and heavy REE may start with Sm, followed by Eu through to Lu. However, the heavy REE are sometimes subdivided further into middle REE comprising Sm, Eu, Gd, Tb and Dy with the remainder of the group, Ho to Lu, referred to as the heavy REE. Because of inconsistent reporting, the component elements of light, medium and heavy REE are best noted in each case. The resources of REE are usually reported as rare earth oxides (REO).

Identified resources of REO occur in the Northern Territory and all states except Tasmania (Figure 3.21 and Figure 3.22). Mount Weld in Western Australia is one of the world's richest REE deposits. Other significant REE deposits occur in New South Wales at Toongi, in the Northern Territory at Nolans Bore and in Victoria at the Wim deposits. Olympic Dam in South Australia, however, contains an Inferred Resource of more than 47 million tonnes of REO, more than 23 times the total resource at Mount Weld (2.3 Mt).

China holds around 55 million tonnes, which is 50% of the world's economic resources for REO, whilst Australia accounts for 3% of world EDR with 3.19 million tonnes (Table 3.30). Globally, the production of REE is dominated by China, which accounts for about 87% of production followed by the United States of America with about 6% (Table 3.31). Australia did not produce rare earths in 2012 but began producing them from the Mount Weld deposit at the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant in Malaysia in the June quarter of 2013. Historically, Australia has also exported large quantities of monazite from heavy mineral sands for the extraction of both rare earths and thorium.

Note that all figures for REE in this section are for REO and include yttrium oxide.

Figure 3.21 is a map of Australia showing the names, locations and size of major rare earth oxide (REO) deposits. The map also shows the state boundaries and capital cities as well as the major geological provinces of the country. REO deposits are displayed as filled grey circles split into four sizes according to the total in situ resources of REO. The four sizes are labelled '<0.5 million tonnes', '0.5 to 1 million tonnes', '1 to 3 million tonnes' and 'greater than 45 million tonnes'. In addition, the circle for Mount Weld in Western Australia is drawn with a heavy black line indicating that it is an operating mine. The map shows that REO deposits are scattered across the country with every jurisdiction except Tasmania and the ACT containing REOs. By far the largest deposit is in South Australia at Olympic Dam which is an operating mine but not for REO. Other deposits occur in the central Australia, the Mount Isa region, the central west of New South Wales and a cluster of REO deposits occur in the mineral sands of Victoria.

Figure 3.21 Australia's major rare earth deposits based on total Identified Resources.
Source: Geoscience Australia.

Resources and Reserves

Table 3.29 Australia's resources of rare earth oxides with world figures as at December 2012.
Units JORC Reserves (% of EDR) Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) Paramarginal Demonstrated Resources Submarginal Demonstrated Resources Inferred Resources Accessible EDR Mine Production in 2012 World Economic Resources World Mine Production in 2012
Source: Geoscience Australia, the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics and the United States Geological Survey; Paramarginal and submarginal demonstrated resources are subeconomic at this time, Mt = million tonnes.
Mt 2.15 (67%) 3.19 0.42 31.14 22.33 3.19 0 115 0.106

Figure 3.22 comprises two pie charts side by side. The one on the left shows the percentage of Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) of rare earth oxides (REO) held by each state and territory in Australia as at December 2012. The chart on the right shows the percentage of total REO resources held by each state and territory in Australia as at December 2012. Western Australia has the most REO EDR with 58%, followed by the Northern Territory with 24% and New South Wales with 18%. In contrast, South Australia has the most total REO resources with 83% of the national total, followed by Victoria with 6%, Western Australia with 5% and the remaining jurisdictions with 3% or less each.

Figure 3.22 Percentages of Economic Demonstrated Resources and total resources of rare earth oxides held by the states and territories in Australia. Total resources comprise all Demonstrated and Inferred Resources. Numbers are rounded so might not add up to 100% exactly.
Source: Geoscience Australia.

World Ranking

Table 3.30 World economic resources for rare earth oxides.
Rank Country Rare earth oxides (t) Percentage of world total
Source: United States Geological Survey and Geoscience Australia; REO includes Y2O3; Percentages are rounded so might not add up to 100% exactly; t = tonnes.
1 China 55 220 000 50%
2 United States of America 13 120 000 12%
3 Australia 3 190 000 3%
4 India 3 172 000 3%
5 Malaysia 43 000 <1%
6 Brazil 38 200 <1%
  Others 36 346 800 33%
  Total 111 130 000  
Table 3.31 World production for rare earth elements.
Rank Country Rare earth oxides (t) Percentage of world total
Source: United States Geological Survey and the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics; REO includes Y2O3; Percentages are rounded so might not add up to 100% exactly, t = tonnes.
1 China 103 800 87%
2 United States of America 7000 6%
3 India 2856 2%
4 Malaysia 354 <1%
5 Brazil 315 <1%
  Australia 0 0%
  Others 575 4%
  Total 118 900  

Trends

Geoscience Australia's historical data for resources of REO only dates to 1990. Recent trends show that the EDR of REO has significantly increased since 2006. China has historically dominated world production of REO (Table 3.31). However, in recent years China has reduced exports of these metals to other countries as its domestic requirements of REO have increased. This increase in demand created a shortage of world supply. In the past decade, several companies have evaluated the resources within REE deposits in Australia (e.g., Nolans Bore and Mount Weld) resulting in a progressive increase in Australia's EDR of REO (Figure 3.23).

Figure 3.23 shows the Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) of rare earth oxides (REO) from 1990 to 2012. There is one line on the chart. The vertical axis is labelled in millions of tonnes beginning at 0 and in increments of half a million. The horizontal axis is labelled with the year starting with 1990 and ending with 2012. In the graph, the line starts at 0.3 million tonnes in 1990 and ranges from 0.3 to 1 million tonnes until 2007. In 2007, EDR of REO increased to 1.13 million tonnes and has since increased most years to the current figure of 3.19 million tonnes in 2012.

Figure 3.23 Trends in Economic Demonstrated Resources for REO+Y2O3 since 1990.
Source: Geoscience Australia.

Resource to Production Ratio

Between 1973 and 1983, Australia exported monazite concentrates to a number of countries including France, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Japan, Malaysia, India and Taiwan. These concentrates were from heavy mineral sands mining operations from Western Australia and from along the east coast of Australia. Rare earths and thorium were extracted from these concentrates in overseas processing plants. Detailed data are available on the tonnages of concentrates exported and the thorium grades. However, data on the grades of REE and the quantity of REE produced are not known.

In 2013, Australia began producing REO from the Mount Weld deposit in Western Australia. Lynas Corporation, reports that it produced 144 tonnes on a REO equivalent basis in the June quarter of 2013.

At this stage, it is not possible to give a meaningful indicative resource life based on the ratio of AEDR to current mine production.