An international team of scientists has helped to unravel a longstanding mystery about how rare earth element deposits form underground – and sometimes seem to disappear without a trace.
Rare earth elements (REEs) are a set of 17 valuable chemical elements that are incredibly important in manufacturing technological devices, being used as critical raw materials in everything from smartphones to disk drives, wind turbines, satellites, electric vehicles, medical equipment, and more.
Although their name suggests they are rare, they can in fact be relatively abundant resources in Earth’s crust; their scattershot dispersion makes them difficult to isolate and extract from under the surface, let alone in environmentally friendly ways.
Because of this, concentrated REE deposits are a highly coveted natural resource, and scientists are continually looking into devising new and better ways of finding and securing the valuable minerals.
In a new study led by geologist Michael Anenburg from Australian National University, researchers wanted to explore the chemical mechanisms by which REEs form under the surface, specifically in and around the igneous carbonatite rock closely associated with the elements.
“These rare rocks and their altered and weathered derivatives provide most of the world’s REE,” the researchers explain in their new paper.
“No unified model explains all features of carbonatite-associated REE deposits, strongly impairing exploration required to secure future supply.”
To investigate the mineralisation processes behind carbonatite-associated REE deposits, Anenburg and his team simulated what happens when carbonatite rock heats up under high pressure, before cooling and depressurising much like it would in natural magmatic processes.
Putting small amounts of synthetic carbonatite into silver or nickel capsules in a piston-cylinder apparatus, the researchers subjected the samples to temperatures of up to 1,200 °C (2,192 °F) at pressures up to 2.5 gigapascals (GPa), before gradually decompressing and cooling them down
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