The rare earth industry continues to be an important part of not only the development and manufacture of high-end technologies, but also as a geopolitical tool in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable global market. Disruptions to supply chains caused by tariffs, the imposition of sourcing restrictions for some products and uncertainty over the future of major producers has resulted in a renewed focus on diversifying the source of rare earth products, particularly outside of China. Simultaneously, the Chinese industry has continued to introduce legislation to ‘clean-up’ their domestic rare earth industry, tackling the environmental, social and governmental impact of historical production.
In 2019, China is forecast to account for 77% of global rare earth production, with six state owned enterprises forming the majority of supply. Despite its dominance of the global industry, China’s production of mined rare earths has been impacted in recent years by the introduction of environmental legislation and industry consolidation. Environmental legislation has led to many operations, predominantly in southern Chinese provinces, suspending production. As a result, Chinese processors have looked to alternative sources of rare earth raw materials, creating opportunities for producers both in the Chinese domestic market and in the rest-of-world. Ion adsorption clay ores, monazite mineral concentrates and recycled rare earth materials have all been imported and processed by facilities in China, to meet growing demand for rare earth products. Illegal production remains a significant source of raw materials in China, though efforts by local and central government have reduced illegal production by almost 50% since 2016.
Rare earth production at operations outside of China is limited to a small number of locations in 2019, though there are multiple projects under development in Australia, Canada, the USA and Africa with the potential to supply rare earth concentrates to the market. The production of refined rare earth production outside China is even scarcer than the supply of mined raw materials and has been identified as a supply chain risk by some consumers.
Demand for rare earths is diverse, with rare earth products being consumed in many end-use applications which may only require one or two separated rare earth compounds or products. Roskill forecast rare earth demand to grow by over 5% in 2019, driven by the increased use of rare earth permanent magnets in automotive and renewable energy applications, supported by underlying demand growth in catalysts, ceramics and polishing powders. Rare earth magnets are forecast to form 28% of total demand in 2019, consuming a mixture of rare earths including Nd, Pr, Gd, Dy and Ce. By 2025, rare earth magnets are forecast to exceed a third of total demand, changing the focus of rare earth producers and processors. The changing emphasis towards rare earth magnet raw materials is expected to impact rare earth pricing mechanisms, with operations becoming increasingly dependent economically on a small number of individual rare earths.
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