Kalbar Conversations Column

What is monazite? Why are the rare earths it contains, useful?

   Wednesday 6th January, 2021

This week monazite features as the final story in our series about the heavy minerals that occur in the Fingerboards deposit.

Monazite is a brown crystalline mineral consisting of cerium, lanthanum, other rare earth elements, and thorium. Monazite usually occurs in small, isolated crystals or grains that are resistant to weathering and become concentrated in soils and sediments downslope from the host rock. When in high enough concentrations, the grains are mined for their rare earth content. Monazite, together with the zircon, rutile and ilmenite that we have talked about recently, is concentrated in the Fingerboards deposit.

Rare earth elements are a group of 17 metals made up of 15 lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium. The rare earth elements contained in the Fingerboards monazite include neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, terbium and yttrium.

The global demand and strategic importance for rare earth elements has increased drastically over the past two decades as society demands, and governments legislate that we address global warming with higher environmental standards and lower emissions in both domestic and industrial settings. Rare earth elements (REEs) have unique catalytic, metallurgical, nuclear, electrical, magnetic and luminescent properties and are playing a pivotal role in greenhouse gas reduction via low carbon technologies.

Electric, hybrid and hydrogen vehicles are increasingly driving demand for rare earth metals. Estimates indicate that electric vehicles will account for two percent of the global market in 2020, eight percent by 2025 and 20 percent by 2030. An electric vehicle needs up to two kilograms of rare earths to help run the 20-50 small electrical motors in our modern cars such as those to power seat adjustment, wipers, side mirrors, roof movements, ABS brake pumps, power steering, air conditioning compressors, cooling water and oil pumps, and pollution control.

The wind energy industry is driving global growth in the use of rare earth magnets, which are three times stronger and 1/10th the size of conventional magnets. Direct-drive wind turbines can use up to two tonnes of rare earth permanent magnets which provide better electrical yield, reduced maintenance and improved reliability (with no need for a gear box).

Rare earths are the backbone to many of the electronic devices that we use on a daily basis and for which demand continues to grow. Each smart phone contains a few grams of rare earths, which may not sound like much, but with more than 6 billion mobile phone users across the globe, the demand is great. Rare earths are enablers of digital technology and its miniaturisation –television, cameras, and music. Rare earths are also found in compact fluorescent light bulbs and your air conditioning unit on the office or home wall.

Vesna Rendulic - Stakeholder Engagement and Communications Specialist