Rare earth elements (REEs) have been part of our planet since the beginning. Even as you read this, you are likely surrounded by them: in smartphones, vehicles, and the fluorescent lights buzzing above your head.
These elements are a vital part of modern life, yet many are unaware of their existence. But not Gloria Lopez, who has devoted her career to the study of naturally occurring metals.
Lopez, a minerals geologist with the Alberta Geological Survey (AGS), says that while demand for REEs may be increasing, Alberta is in its exploratory infancy.
"We can say that Alberta has a geological environment that is favourable for rare earth element deposits," she says. "This doesn't mean they are ready to be developed—we don't even know specifically where we have them."
Alberta's only known REE deposit was found northwest of Fort McMurray in the Birch Mountain area, discovered in the 1990s by a company pursuing other minerals. But based on the province's geology, Lopez predicts that REEs are likely to be found near Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, the Crowsnest Pass, and throughout the Canadian Shield, which runs throughout half of Canada.
Lopez adds that calling REEs "rare" is somewhat misleading as the metals are found globally. She explains that these elements are rare in the sense that they're difficult to separate from each other and seldom found in concentrated amounts.
“We can say that Alberta has a geological environment that is favourable for rare earth element deposits.”
Gloria Lopez, minerals geologist
"This makes them hard to find at the concentrations needed for commercial extraction, and price uncertainty has not made them economically viable," she says.
Lopez adds that because REEs are always grouped together and each one has a particular commercial use, producers face challenges finding customers for more than one element.
Although careful not to speculate on the future of REEs in the province, Lopez does anticipate global demand will increase as the desire for technology grows.
The 411 on REEs
REEs are naturally occurring metals found in rocks and minerals, and are on the periodic table. The 17 different elements are used in the medical, aerospace, aviation, automotive, military, industrial, and consumer electronics fields.
REEs have unique properties that make them useful in portable electronic devices, flat screen monitors, and TVs. They're also used in the making of power steering and power windows in cars, in addition to electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels. They first became a desired commodity in the 1960s, giving the world colour TV.
China represented about 70 per cent of the global production in 2018, Australia at 12 per cent, and the U.S. at 9 per cent.
REEs are under the authority of the Government of Alberta; the AGS, a branch of the Alberta Energy Regulator, provides expertise and advice on minerals to the government.
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So what are the REEs found in Alberta?
In what amounts?
Can they be extracted from the Oil Sands effluent?
Or are these new mining projects?
Because REEs often occur together, all 17 were found in a mineral deposit in the Birch Mountain area, which is northwest of Fort McMurray.
Since Alberta is new to the REEs sector, we can only say that there is potential for REEs to be extracted from oil sands effluent. That said, no work is being done to extract REEs in Alberta--we are still in the the exploratory stage.