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Communications of the ACM


Electronics Need Rare Earths

rare earth metal mine in China

A rare earth metal mine in China.

Credit: Nikkei Asian Review

Rare-earth elements are special minerals used in a wide variety of consumer and industrial products. Though they have exotic-sounding names, such as neodymium, scandium, and dysprosium, they are abundant right here on Earth. They are considered rare, however, because they appear in very small concentrations.

In addition, the process used to separate them from the rocks in which they occur is extremely difficult, because the elements have the same ionic charge and are similar in size. Typical separation and purification processes often require thousands of extraction and purification stages to be carried out. As such, there is a significant premium attached to these materials, and several market and geopolitical forces may cause them to escalate in value.


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