Researchers at the Trinity College Dublin say they've discovered a crucial insight into how "Rare Earth Elements" are created.

These insights could have major economic effects, since there are no alternatives to these rare earth elements (REEs), which are invaluable for shaping tiny yet highly efficient magnets, necessary for smart machinery and low carbon electricity production (e.g., electronics, wind turbines, hybrid cars).

More than 250 recognized REE minerals are usable, but only 3 are economically viable and commercially mined. Bastnäsite is potentially the world's main important REE mineral, which was at the core of Trinity's research team.

Photo by Dan-Cristian Pădureț / Unsplash
“The fact that we need more REEs urges us to find out more about the geochemical behaviour of these precious elements. Simply, we need to know a lot more about REEs, and how and why they form, if we want more of them"

said study author Adrienn Maria Szucs.

“The crystallisation pathway we discovered reveals that in some rare earth-bearing deposits the origin of bastnäsite could be simply a consequence of the interaction of calcite with rare earth-rich fluids. This is not the only reaction that forms bastnäsite but the discovery is particularly important because calcite is found everywhere and is also the most stable calcium carbonate in nature. As a result, it suggests it should be possible to support the formation of bastnäsite under the right conditions.”

The majority of REEs are mined in carbonate depots, but scientists also discuss the way and why they form because of their intricate mineralogy, elements' structure, and geological background. The largest known carbonatite is Bayan Obo in China.

The use of REEs for high-tech products is continually increasing over the years, and therefore the demand for them is also shooting up. This has generated significant geopolitical competition because many REEs have become very valuable.

said Principal Investigator Juan Diego Rodriguez-Blanco, Ussher Assistant Professor in Nanomineralogy at Trinity.

“Unfortunately, extracting and refining REEs is both financially and environmentally expensive, so work like this is important for bettering our understanding of formation mechanisms of bastnäsite, which in turn helps us improve existing extraction and refinement methods.”