New demand for electric vehicles—are rare earths the bottleneck in the supply chain? Can recycling and substitution make a dent in the demand for REE in the near future? Is it economically feasible for advanced nations to mine for REE but process them elsewhere to allay environmental concerns at home?
Rare earths are critical components to many technologies that drive the modern world. Though rare earths are present in most parts of the world, they are produced mostly in China because of a confluence of several factors. This paper reviews various aspects of rare earths including extraction, geopolitics, and challenges. Rare-earth elements (REEs) not only replace each other in the mineral structure but also occur within different mineral structures in the same deposit. Separation of one REE from another is therefore difficult, environmentally challenging, and expensive. Less than 1% of REEs is recycled due to many challenges of collecting various end products and separating the REE from other metals/contaminants. Recycling investments have primarily focused on applications such as magnets, where economies of scale have allowed it. Substitution for the REE is difficult for most applications, though the automotive and wind energy industries are making good advances with motors and generators. The rare earth market is small and, thus, easily disrupted. Factors that can impact the market are increased production from existing mines, development of mine prospects advanced during price spikes, research and development efforts focused on improving REE recoveries, recycling, substitution, alternate sources of REEs, and governmental policies.