Rare-Earth Elements: Essential to Brazil’s Defense Industry

It doesn’t matter if you can’t name a single one of the rare-earth elements. If you’ve used mobile phones, MP3 players or iPhones, you’ve already been in contact with them.
Isabel Estrada | 27 December 2011

It doesn’t matter if you can’t name a single one of the rare-earth elements. If you’ve used mobile phones, MP3 players or iPhones, you’ve already been in contact with them. The Western Hemisphere alone consumes $1 billion worth of rare earths per year, and worldwide demand for the exotic minerals exceeds supply by 40,000 tons annually.

From that angle, the strategic importance of the rare earths to a country’s economy makes them a national security matter, not even taking into account crucial military needs.

In addition, all hybrid car batteries, solar panels and wind turbines depend on rare earths such as neodymium, lutetium, dysprosium and europium. They also show significant promise in oil refining. It’s not just that rare earths are better for these uses. Many of these high-tech products and new technologies are based, sometimes exclusively, on the properties of these elements.

The Brazilian House of Representatives recently hosted naval engineer Leonam dos Santos Guimarães, who explained the importance of strategic minerals to lawmakers.

“The national effort in the sector has been out of step with the existent concerns in the world stage,” said dos Santos Guimarães, assistant to the chief executive of Eletrobrás Termonuclear SA, a leading Brazilian electric utility. “There is a need for a repositioning in the short term.”

“Renewable energy technologies are responsible for around 20 percent of the world’s consumption of rare earth minerals,” dos Santos Guimarães said. “This is an industry with great growth potential in the next few years.”

UN: Rare earths a priority

The United Nations Environment Program has already called attention to the vulnerability of the green economy to shortages of rare-earth minerals.

"Many new and emerging clean energy technologies, such as the components of wind turbines and electric vehicles, depend on materials with unique properties,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “The availability of a number of these materials is at risk due to their location, vulnerability to supply disruptions and lack of suitable substitutes.”

The quest for these critical raw materials will more than triple by 2030, explains dos Santos Guimarães, which has triggered speculation about the impending “war of the elements.”

“The high risk to the supply of critical raw materials is due to the small number of countries that produce most of them,” he said. “The concentration of production goes hand in hand, in many cases, with the lack of adequate substitutes [for rare earths] and low rates of recycling.” As Brazil’s National Defense Strategy revs up, rare earth elements (REEs) will be increasingly on the minds of the country’s military and civilian leadership.

Rare earths are a select group of 17 chemical elements of the lanthanide series plus scandium and yttrium. Their oxides have an earth-like appearance, and they’re called rare because of their sparse deposits throughout the planet, even though some elements are relatively plentiful.

The 15 lanthanides are lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium.

“The rare earths are not that rare, since they can be found in many countries, including Australia, Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Russia and United States,” said dos Santos Guimarães. “But they are difficult to extract in volumes that make it economically feasible.”

Opportunity in scarcity

The scarcity of rare earths could bring the defense industry to a standstill, since they are essential components in cutting-edge technology such as precision-guided munitions, lasers, communication systems, cruise missiles, radar systems, avionics, night-vision equipment, nuclear energy and technology, reactive armor and satellites.

Industrial defense laboratories require some or all 17 of the rare earth elements to function. This is also good news, because these strategic minerals could be a developmental launching pad for Brazil.

“As the sixth-largest world economy, Brazil is hungry for minerals in general and for rare earths in particular,” said Roberto Villas-Bõas, researcher for the Center of Mineral Technology (CETEM), a national research institute linked to the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology. “Before, rare earths were supplied by the only active commercial source, China. With the changes of supply in that country, other countries have become alternative sources.”

Brazil has likely reserves of 3.5 billion tons of rare earths, according to the U.S. Geological Service. The Amazon’s vast Seis Lagos reserve alone could have 2.9 billion tons, resulting in 43.5 million tons of minerals. But there’s no way to know in advance which elements are in those deposits.

In all, Brazil’s rare-earth deposits represent less than 1 percent of total world reserves, according to geologist Romualdo Homobono Paes de Andrade of the National Department of Mineral Production. By comparison, China has 36.5 percent of world’s reserves.

Asked if Brazilian reserves are enough for the country to be self-sufficient, Villas-Bõas replied: “Not only self-sufficient, but even to export. All deposits of phosphates, for instance, are huge reserves of rare earths and other minerals.”

Potential risks and needed protections

Brazil was a pioneer in the mining of rare earths, beginning in 1886 with the exploration of the monazite sands of Cumuruxatiba in Bahia state. Brazil remained the world’s largest producer of rare earths until 1915, when it was overtaken by India, said dos Santos Guimarães.

With the recent jump in Chinese production, it became much cheaper to buy than to mine for rare earths. China now produces 97 percent of the world’s rare earth supply, and has begun limiting exports in order to guarantee domestic supplies. This has occurred at a time of rising demand, so countries like Brazil are waking up to the need to reopen production to prevent shortages.

“The hiatus in the exploitation of rare earths was natural,” explained Villas-Bõas. “It occurred in Brazil and in the rest of the world since, commercially, China was unbeatable. Nobody was doing enough research or exploration.” But he says Brazil has plenty of experience and know-how in mining and processing.

“The concentration of efforts and investment in the exploration of rare earths could mean an invaluable technological advance for Brazil,” says dos Santos Guimarães, noting that the country has passed legislation to ensure control over its own reserves.

But that won’t be enough, he warned.

“There are weaknesses that go well beyond the ownership of the lands, especially in the underpopulated and little-known Amazonian regions where there is frequent illegal contraband of rare earths and radioactive minerals,” he said. Such activities also pose a significant threat to the Amazon’s environment, given legitimate concerns surrounding the mining of rare earths.

That’s why, says dos Santos Guimarães, Brazil is also interested in “exploring the development of replacement materials and technologies, as well as ways to recycle and increase efficiency in the use and reuse of these elements.”

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