1965 1970 1975 1980 1985
China currently dominates the world’s production of rare-earth oxides.
1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2011 2012 2013
Rest of world
grouped together—in aluminum. In this case,
the nanoparticles are made of scandium and
are surrounded by lithium, resulting in a material having the strength of steel but are lighter
How rare are these metals?
Rare-earth metals are no longer considered
rare, because they have been located all over
ently mines and produces about 97% of the
world’s supply of rare-earth metals (Fig. 1).
In 2011, China cut its export of rare-earth
elements, causing demand—and prices—to
spike. But as new mines rushed to get in on
the action, those added sources resulted in an
oversupply. That caused prices to plummet.
New mines closed, leading to worldwide concern that these essential metals might soon be
in short supply.
Luminescent Lanthanide Agents. Raymond
Group Research in collaboration with the U.S.
Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley
National Laboratory: http://www.cchem.berkeley.
edu/knrgrp/ ln.html [accessed Sept 2016].
Hanson, D. J. Concern Grows Over Rare-Earths
Supply. Chem. Eng. News, May 16, 2011: http://cen.
Earths.html [accessed Sept 2016].
Meyer, M. Industrial Vitamins. Chemical Heritage
magazine, Chemical Heritage Foundation:
[accessed Sept 2016].
Gail Kay Haines is a science writer and book author
from Olympia, Wash. Her most recent ChemMatters
article, “Probiotics: Good Bacteria, Good Health,”
appeared in the October/November 2015 issue.
the globe. Actually,
more common than
gold. But in nature,
are found together
in the same miner-
als, and it is difficult
to separate them.
Also, ore deposits
to mine are rare.
China leads the world
in both supply and
manufacture of rare-earth metals. Canada,
Japan, Australia, and Afghanistan have lantha-
nide sources, and so have California, Alaska,
and some other western U.S. states. Rich
deposits hide under the Pacific Ocean.
But mines pollute, and complying with envi-
ronmental regulations costs money, driving
many rare-earth metal mining operations out
of business, except in China, which does not
impose stringent rules. As a result, China pres-
Figure 1. Changes in global production of rare-earth elements between 1950
Rare-Earth Metals in Everyday Products
Rare-earth metals are used in hundreds of everyday products, ranging from camera lenses and X-ray
machines to batteries, bicycles, and airplane parts. Chances are some products around you (or in
your pocket) contain rare-earth elements. Here are some commonly used rare earth-elements and
products in which they are used:
Scandium (Sc): Alloyed
with aluminum, scandium
makes strong sports gear
and airplane parts.
Yttrium-europium oxide produces a
bright red phosphor for television. Yttrium-doped solar
cells collect green light.
Used to strengthen
every Toyota Prius
battery and is part of
every car’s catalytic
Creates strong, yet
small, magnets for cell
phones, tablets, computers, and ear buds.
(Eu2O3) is widely used
as a red phosphor in
television sets and
and Holmium (Ho):
Dysprosium and holmium
ions—usually doped onto
other oxides—are used
in light-emitting materials
in lasers, computer hard
disks, and nuclear reactor
Erbium (Er): Erbium(III) oxide
(Er2O3) is used as a pink coloring
agent. Erbium-doped yttrium alu-
minium garnet lasers
are used for medi-
cal applications to
remove acne scars
Used to monitor
caused by earthquakes and underground explosions.
Samarium (Sm): Makes powerful
magnets used in precision-guided
weapons, also used in medical imaging
to treat bone cancer metastases
(in which case a radioactive
isotope of samarium,
Sm-153, is used).
Cerium (Ce): Blocks
ultraviolet light for
sunglasses and touch-screens.