What are rare earth elements?

By Sudheer Kumar K|Updated : July 31st, 2021

Recently, US President Biden said they have been investigating neodymium magnets (rare earth magnets) in a bid to reduce dependency on China and to boost the US supply chain in the area of rare earth elements.

About Rare Earth Elements (REE)

The rare earth elements (REE) are a group of 17 elements namely scandium, yttrium and 15 lanthanides, which are arranged in the periodic table from atomic numbers 57 to 71.

They are rare, because they are found in low abundance in pure form / high concentrates and hence are isolated from oxide-type minerals and placer deposits.

 REE are characterized by:

  • high density,
  • high melting point,
  • high conductivity and
  • high thermal conductance

Significance of REE

  • REEs are believed to have distinct metallurgical, catalytic, electrical, magnetic, nuclear, and luminescent properties.
  • Many of rare earth minerals contain thorium and uranium in variable amounts. Hence, they have strategic importance.
  • They are also crucial to emerging technologies such as renewable energy (solar and wind) and electric vehicles.

Applications of REE

REE have wide ranging applications ranging from daily use appliances to air pollution control and defence equipment. Hence, they play critical role in the application of many modern technologies. They are used in:

  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines
  • manufacturing LED screens- computer & cell phone, and electric vehicle batteries
  • satellites and defence equipment like night-vision goggles, communications equipment, precision-guided weapons and GPS equipment
  • polishing glass, ceramic and gemstones
  • exhaust systems as catalysts for air pollution control and
  • manufacturing durable solar panels and wind turbines

REE in India & World

Till 1980, the United States was a major producer of REEs, but it was China who understood the importance of REEs and became a major low-cost producer and leading exporter of REEs. China produces about 90% of the supply. Many countries including the US, India and EU are importing large quantities of REEs from China.


India has the world’s fifth-largest reserves of rare earth elements, nearly twice as much as Australia, however it imports most of its rare earth needs in finished form from China. In India, monazite beach sand minerals (found in coastal states as mentioned in the image below) is the principal source of rare earths and thorium.



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