The “blood” of the industry is called petroleum, the “food” of the sector is chips, and the “vitamin” of the industry is called a rare-earth elements. In the global industrial system, the Middle East controls the “blood,” the United States owns the “food,” and China occupies most of the “vitamins” market.
Rare-earth metals are the general term for the 17 elements of scandium, yttrium, and lanthanides in group IIIB of the periodic table. It has been 227 years since the first rare-earth element was discovered. The reason why it was named rare-earth elements was influenced by ancient Greek philosophy at that time. It is believed that everything in the world is composed of air, water, fire, and soil. All oxides are called “earth,” and this kind of “earth” is sporadic.
But in fact, with the development of science, mankind has realized that “rare-earth elements are not rare.” For example, the reserves of cerium in the earth’s crust are similar to copper. The rarest rare-earth elements metal is thulium, and the resources are 200 times the gold.
Rare-earth Elements in Semiconductors
Rare-earth metals are rare metals used in all aspects of the industrial field, especially the semiconductor industry. For example, the second-generation semiconductor materials gallium arsenide, indium telluride, and the third-generation semiconductor materials gallium nitride, etc. In addition, rare-earth metals also play a huge role in polishing, target materials, and laser lights with their excellent physical and chemical properties.
Rare-earth elements are often used as polishing materials. Cerium oxide is the most commonly used material for polishing powders. Hard glass, such as quartz, and optical lenses, are primarily polished with high-cerium polishing powders. Medium cerium polishing powders are used for medium-precision optical lenses and polishing liquid crystal displays and other workpieces. Surfaces like flat panels, picture tubes, etc., are polished with low-cerium polishing powder.
In the field of semiconductor targets, there are also rare-earth elements related figures. Although most of the sputtering targets of semiconductor chips are made of traditional metals such as copper and aluminum, a considerable number are mainly based on tantalum and molybdenum targets. For example, molybdenum and indium oxide are often used as flat panel display targets. Tantalum is used as a chipping target, and tungsten is used as a memory chip target.
Another practical use of rare-earth elements is in lasers. There is even a view that rare-earth elements gave birth to artificial lasers.
There are currently about 320 laser crystals. About 290 are doped with rare-earth elements as activating ions, such as neodymium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet crystals, which can be used as pulse lasers with high repetition rates. It’s also possible to utilize lithium yttrium fluoride as activating ions.
Lasers play an essential part in semiconductor production, whether used for laser cutting or as a light source for lithography equipment. ASML’s lasers are provided by TRUMPF Germany. Fortune Technology is the global leader in laser crystals. Although there is no direct evidence that Fortune Technology has an inevitable connection with ASML, it proves that China’s rare-earth elements have a pivotal position in the global industrial chain.
In addition, the terbium element can be used as a magneto-optical storage material and has been used on a large scale. Magneto-optical discs made of this material can increase the storage capacity by 10 to 15 times. In telecommunication networks that need to amplify optical signals with a wavelength of 1550 nm, an Erbium-doped fiber amplifier is an indispensable optical device. Honeywell and other companies have used strontium to make photonic chips. Japan’s Showa Denko has also developed high-temperature resistant semiconductor materials based on cobalt. Rare-earth elements-related metals can be described as semiconductors.
Rare-earth Elements and Military Industry
Semiconductors and rare-earth elements go hand in hand in many fields. For example, in the military industry, military industries without rare-earth elements and semiconductors cannot form a strong deterrent.
Nowadays, almost all large and medium-sized weapons have achieved electronic information, from night vision devices to aircraft, tanks, and aircraft carriers. Semiconductors are everywhere. Rare-earth elements also play a vital role in specific military fields.
According to relevant information from the US Department of Defense, each stealth F-35 strike fighter requires 920 pounds (417 kilograms) of rare-earth elements materials; each Arleigh Burke-class destroyer requires 5,200 pounds (2.4 tons); one SSN-774 Virginia Class submarine needs 9,200 pounds (4.2 tons).
In laser guidance and other fields, semiconductors often appear together with rare-earth elements, and even some weapons are directly named after rare-earth elements. For example, the neodymium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet laser rangefinder used in tanks is the standard equipment of modern advanced tanks. There is no exception from the American M1 to the British “Challenger” and the German “Leopard 2”. Its measuring distance is up to 20 kilometers, and the accuracy is much higher than that of ordinary optical rangefinders.
Rare-earth Elements and Automobiles
Another big intersection between rare-earth elements and semiconductors lies in the automotive industry. Automotive electronics has now become a proper term. Up to now, the global automotive electronics market has approached a market size of 350 million USD. With the continuous development of new energy vehicles and autonomous driving technology, automotive electronics will proliferate. The rare-earth elements will also usher in more excellent room for growth.
The application of rare-earth elements in automobiles is also ubiquitous. For example, yttrium is used to produce compact fluorescent lamps. Cerium oxide can replace traditional precious metals such as platinum (Pt) and rhodium (Rh) for automobiles with excellent catalytic performance. Exhaust gas treatment, the annual consumption of cerium oxide used in automobile exhaust purification is about 11,500 tons.
Terbium and dysprosium are used to produce magnets that can operate well at high temperatures. Magnets are an essential part of the automotive power system. Most of these elements need to be imported from China, especially Japan.
It is reported that, in general, more than 30 parts of a complete car need to use rare-earth elements permanent magnets, and more than 70 parts of high-end vehicles need to use rare-earth features permanent magnet materials to complete various control actions.
A high-end car needs about 0.5kg-3.5kg of rare-earth elements permanent magnet materials, which is even more significant in new energy vehicles. Each hybrid vehicle consumes 5kg more neodymium iron boron than traditional cars. The permanent magnet motor replaces conventional motors in pure electric vehicles with 5-10kg neodymium iron boron.
Rare-earth Elements VS Semiconductor
In recent years, the rare-earth elements market will be brought up for discussion with semiconductors. But it is worth noting that rare-earth elements and semiconductors are not comparable in terms of the industrial scale. According to relevant data, the output value of China’s rare-earth elements industry chain in 2018 was about 14 billion USD. In 2017, the global semiconductor output value was 476.7 billion US dollars. The output value of rare-earth elements and semiconductors is much smaller than semiconductors, even less than a fraction of semiconductors.
Rare-earth materials and the upstream and downstream processes involved are well behind semiconductors in terms of technological thresholds.
In the upstream and downstream industry chain, the semiconductor industry chain is undoubtedly more extensive, from design to manufacturing, equipment, materials, and many industries. Take TSMC as an example. The number of its suppliers exceeds 3,000. Rare-earth elements undoubtedly do not need such a long industrial chain.
In summary, the rare-earth elements and semiconductor industries may not be comparable in terms of the industrial scale. However, in terms of importance, the sector will shrink if it lacks “food,” It will decline if it lacks “vitamins.” The difference between the two is only which deteriorates faster. That’s it.