EDITOR: | February 19th, 2016 | 7 Comments

Stop calling them “rare” earths, says noted earth scientist

| February 19, 2016 | 7 Comments

REE-Handbook-badgeThere are all of 2,550 rare minerals around the world. And rare earths are not (repeat: not) contained within that list, and are definitely not deserving of that description, say two experts who have catalogued what they consider really to be the world’s really “rare” minerals.

As usual, Shakespeare has the apposite quote:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet hit the nail on the head, as we now learn, according to a new list published by two academics. For example, geologists working in Azerbaijan recently discovered Barikaite, an antimony-containing mineral.

And we learn from Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, that a team of scientists (including the museum’s geoscientist Stuart Mills) has found a mineral that could be a natural solution to purifying water affected by excess nitrate, the type of water pollution caused by fertilizer run-off (a global problem as that run-off is responsible for algae blooms). The newly discovered mineral, Mössbauerite, was discovered on the French coastline near Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy. Dr Mills said the new find is mixed with other green rust minerals; green rusts are being used to remove algae in problems areas of Brittany. “This is just the beginning,” he added. Mills believes these minerals could shape the whole water treatment scene well into the future.

The lead researcher who has now catalogued the 2,550 rare minerals, earth scientist Dr Robert Hazan of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, has estimated there are still 1,500 undiscovered minerals to be found. (His co-author is Jesse Ausubel of The Rockefeller University.)

According to the authors of their new paper, On the Nature and Significance of Rarity in Mineralogy, the greatest value of finding these many rare minerals is that they provide tell-tale clues about what is happening (and has happened) below the Earth’s surface.

The authors also tackle the name of rare earth elements. We should drop that tag, they argue. “Uses of the word ‘rare’ in the context of ‘rare earth elements’ or ‘rare metals’ are simply misleading as many thousands of tons of these commodities are produced annually,” they wrote in their paper,

(And you can see their point: how many articles have you read in the mainstream media since rare earths became a fashionable topic five or six years ago that include, somewhere near the beginning, the important proviso that rare earths are not really rare and are found in many places?)

No, Hazen says the word should be saved for things that really are rare – like ichnusaite, a mineral created by interaction between thorium* and molybdenum. Only one specimen has ever been found, and that was located in Sardinia. The authors also point out that precious stones, such as diamonds, rubies, emeralds, are found at numerous locations and sold in commercial quantities, and so the world “rare” in relation to those is inappropriate. “If you wanted to give your fiancé a really rare ring, forget diamonds,’ says Hazan. “Give her Sardinian ichnusite.”

There are 5,090 known minerals on Earth, and fewer than 100 of those make up 99% of the planet’s crust.

Hazen has even had one of these rare minerals name after him. Hazenite (identified by a former student of his) is found only in Mono Lake in the California desert. Classified as KNaMg2(PO4)2.H2O, it is a product of the action of microbes in the highly alkaline lake. Mono was formed 750,000 years ago and its lack of an outlet causes high levels of salt.

Now that is rare – unlike cerium, of course.

* The mention of thorium reminds me to ask: why has the whole thorium discussion gone so quiet? Especially when the nuclear debate is still dominated by fears of disasters caused by using uranium.


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  • Asher Berube

    Good Luck with that….

    That said Technology Metals is a promising term

    February 19, 2016 - 9:34 AM

  • Tracy Weslosky

    Thanks Robin – as you know, InvestorIntel Director Jack Lifton coined the term “Technology Metals” in 2010, and we have of course, seen the term “Advanced Materials” and “Critical Metals” or “Critical Materials” used as well.

    Yes, we are watching thorium with great interest and are fascinated at how long the nuclear bear market has lasted. Thanks again! PS. The Rare Earth Elements are all defined in a web site http://www.REEHandbook.com that we built in 2012. James Hedrick, who is a top NA rare earth expert – wrote most of the content.

    February 19, 2016 - 10:45 AM

  • SquarePeg

    What is all too rare outside of China is the abilty to process rare earths.

    February 20, 2016 - 6:43 AM

  • Dudley Kingsnorth

    Robin, I agree with your comments entirely for 3 reasons: first, it is a most unscientific term; second, so called rare earth minerals are not rare and third when one Googles “rare earth(s)” a large proportion of the references are real estate.
    Traditionally speaking the term “rare earths” refers to the 15 lanthanides plus yttrium and yttrium. On several occasions over the past 20 years I have tried to gather support to refer to them all as “lanthanides”; but the majority of the people to whom I have spoken to have said that they do believe that it would gain sufficient support. I still believe that lanthanides is a better term that sounds more in keeping with the scientific and technological applications and less of a promotional name.
    Maybe, it is time for more of us to refer to them as “lanthanides (asa rare earths)”

    February 20, 2016 - 9:07 AM

  • Dudley Kingsnorth

    Sorry, typographical error “rare earths” traditionally refer to the lanthanides plus yttrium and scandium.

    February 20, 2016 - 9:09 AM

  • Jack Lifton


    Out of sheer frustration when asked to “define” the “rare earths” I have resorted to called them “the elements with atomic numbers from 57 to 71 plus, due to similarity of chemical properties, those with atomic numbers 21 and 39.” What amazes me is that I am then very often accused of being arrogant or a showoff. I am amazed because I always think that I am being “accurate.”
    I think the issues are really the advancement of chemical education and the sad quality of what is now considered “general knowledge.” My first university course in general chemistry taught us, for example, of “butter of antimony” as the “common name” for antimony trichloride and everyone was required to literally memorize the periodic table of the chemical elements.
    We were aware of the “rare earths” as a common name for the lanthanides, but so little was known about them that they were otherwise ignored.
    Today, more than a half century later, I note that the general grounding in chemistry and physics as well as elementary mathematics which we received in high school has vanished from the curricula or is “elective.” The financial class today is appallingly ignorant of the natural world, and they fall for whatever laboratory experiment is thrown at them as “innovation.”
    Awareness passes for understanding in today’s culture.


    February 20, 2016 - 12:57 PM

  • Eric M. Klier

    It’s a bit long…but I think I’ll go with “those tricky to process Lanthanides”:-)

    February 25, 2016 - 10:47 AM

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