Chemical Production, Oil Refining and Manufacturing

Rare earth elements (REEs) are essential to many chemical and manufacturing processes. In fact, more than 50 percent of REEs in use today contribute to chemical and manufacturing processes. REEs have three major uses in these sectors:

Growth in the use of REEs in the chemical, manufacturing and oil refining sectors will occur in a number of different ways. REEs are also integral in the refinement process used to turn crude oil into gasoline. It is expected that society’s increasing consumption of petroleum will drive demand for rare earth catalysts, as will the tightening environmental standards around pollution. REEs will also continue to be critical ingredients in the production of alloys used to make permanent magnets. As demand for such magnets rises, REEs will remain at the forefront of metallurgical developments.

Rare Earths as Catalysts

REEs are fundamental ingredients in fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) catalysts. FCC is the process whereby crude oils are converted into gasoline and other products. The use of rare earth-containing catalysts facilitates FCC, resulting in higher yields and purer end products than could otherwise be achieved. Around 11 percent of REEs are used in the creation of these catalysts. They are also central to efforts to reduce automotive emissions, as REEs catalyze the conversion of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon to carbon dioxide and water.

Rare Earths in Metallurgical Processes

Many metals cannot be extracted directly from the environment. Examples include copper and aluminum, used in electronic wires and utensils, and iron which is used in various industries, such as transportation.  REEs, when used in a metallurgical context, are employed in the development of these metals. REEs can:

  • Manage the effects of sulfur, oxidizers and other elements
  • Extract valuable metals from their ores safely
  • Refine them into their pure forms
  • Provide important magnetic characteristics

REEs form stable compounds, meaning they can be easily melted and mixed with other chemicals. As such, they play a key role in the manufacture of products such as ductile iron and compacted graphic iron, high-strength low-alloy (HSLA) stainless and specialty steels, hardened magnesium and special copper, nickel and aluminum alloys. Many of these products strengthen our cars, medical devices and buildings.

Rare Earths in Glass and Ceramics

Additionally, REEs are widely used in glass and ceramics manufacturing. REEs are used as polishing compounds and glass additives. They may be employed in decolorizers, color tints, refractive index enhancers, color filters, and radiation and UV protection aids. For example, yttrium stabilized zirconia is used when a coating for materials requires high-wear resistance, such as wear and heat resistant applications such as cylinder liner of internal combustion engines. In terms of their ceramic applications, REEs are used as colorants in glazes and electronic ceramics, as refractories, and in fuel cells. In refractories, rare earth metals form solid solutions with oxygen, leading to greater stability. Fuel cells need REEs as catalysts to turn hydrogen into energy.

REEs are vital to the industries involving chemical production, oil refining, and manufacturing processes. They contribute to the strength and stability valued in products worldwide.