A Semiconductor Goldmine
There was good news for the semiconductor industry in October; Greenland’s parliament lifted a two decade long ban on uranium mining. This ‘green light’ in Greenland also allows for the production of rare earth elements (REE) that are co-located. Huge obstacles still exist though, including Denmark’s control over Greenland’s foreign, defense, and security policies, as well as the enormous infrastructure required to mine materials in the arctic. China dominates the world market with up to 97% of REE production, but hopefully there is supply and pricing relief in sight for these costly and highly sought after materials. “‘We cannot live with unemployment and cost of living increases while our economy is at a standstill. It is therefore necessary that we eliminate zero tolerance towards uranium now, Greenland Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond was quoted as saying by local newspaper Sermitsiaq during debate.”
What Constitutes A Rare Earth Element?
So what is an REE, and are they really “rare”? REEs are the 15 lanthanides, along with Scandium and Yttrium. Scientists further segregate REE into two groups, light REE or cerium earths (scandium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium), and much less abundant heavy REE or Yttrium earths (yttrium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium). REEs are not necessarily “rare”. They are located in many parts of the world, but extracting them from the oxide ores and polymetallic compounds from which they naturally occur is a mechanical engineering challenge. Additionally, they are typically found in very small deposits, making Greenland’s confirmed, large minable quantities exciting. As well as the REE’s, zinc is found in these deposits too.[ii] While zinc is not rare, it is one of the most used elements, which can be taken as a bonus.
Modern Uses For Rare Earth Elements
Minute quantities of REEs are needed for almost all aspects of semiconductor production; from plasma spray coating of Yttrium Oxide in semiconductor equipment to Scandium used in laser diodes. Other high technologies need REEs as well. Erbium is used in pumps for long distance optical fiber transmission. Neodymium mixed with iron and boron makes magnets that are up to 12 times lighter than iron magnets, such as those used for in-ear headphones, loud speakers, hard disk drives, etc. A small amount of dysprosium added to the Neodymium-Iron-Boron mix increases a magnet’s ability to withstand heat and has been an enormous benefit to turbines. These heat tolerant turbines are used in wind turbines and electric car motors.
It will be a long while before we see “Greenland” on the country of origin sticker for REEs though. Demark will have to approve the exportation of these goods, and they have been resistant to see Greenland’s financial independence. Large mining companies, particularly Chinese mining companies, have invested handsomely in the environmental impact studies as well as geological and geophysical engineering research necessary for mining operations. There is now a backlash of concern from the people of Greenland that the Chinese mining operations will be largely built and later staffed by Chinese workers. Friends of the environment are also speaking out against Greenland’s potential uranium and REE mines. Getting to the deposits will require digging some 100 meters under the Arctic ice and the refining process uses large quantities of hazardous materials. History tells us that economics benefit eventually wins all political debates, and our bet is that Greenland will have plentiful REE production in its future.
[i] Reuters, “Greenland votes to Allow Uranium, Rare Earths mining”, Oct. 25, 2013
[ii] World Nuclear Association, “Uranium from Rare Earths Deposits”, August 2013
[iii] NewElectronics, “Rare Earth elements Vital to Electronics Industry”, November 2011