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Malaysia set to be rare earth elements powerhouse

REEs are a necessary component for a wide range of applications, especially high-tech consumer products and devices including smartphones

by FAREZZA HANUM RASHID

RARE earth elements (REEs) have been increasingly important in consumer electronics, electric vehicles (EV), clean energy, and military equipment. 

To achieve growth in advanced technology, their development as a strategic mineral is critical to modern society.

REEs are a necessary component for a wide range of applications, especially high-tech consumer products and devices, including smart phones, digital cameras, fluorescent and light-emitting-diodes (LED), flat screen televisions, and computer monitors.

In the military, REEs are used in night vision goggles, precision-guided weapons, communication equipment, Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment, and other defence electronics. 

REEs’ strong permanent magnetic properties are also used in clean energy technologies like wind turbines, electric motors, catalysts, and solar panels. As for EV, two types of REEs are used, namely neodymium (Nd) and dysprosium (Dy). 

One of the strongest types of permanent magnets is the rare-earth magnets made from alloys. They come in different grades of strength with different magnetic and physical properties.

The stronger neodymium magnets are composed of alloys made primarily of neodymium, iron and boron. However, they are vulnerable to corrosion therefore are usually nickel-plated or coated. 

Common applications include computer hard disk drives, speakers and headphones, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, and integrated starter-generators in hybrid and electric vehicles.

China has the largest reserves of REEs at 44 million tonnes in addition to having the largest refinery controlling the market.

However, Lynas Malaysia Sdn. Bhd.’s operation in Malaysia since 2012 has been able to break the monopoly by being the first refining plant outside China. It is also one of the world’s biggest rare earth refining plants.

Notably, Japan has one of the best material sciences industries, but after years of not having a steady supply of REEs, it now sources from Malaysia – which has enabled Japan to recover and increase its activities since 2013.

The global rare-earth magnet market was valued at US$7.69 billion (RM32.53 billion) in 2020 and it is expected to reach US$11.61 billion by the end of 2026, representing a compound annual growth rate of 6% from 2022 to 2026.

Recognising the potential of this industry, the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA) has been promoting the production of rare-earth magnets under the Promotion of Investment Act (PIA) 1986.

“There is high potential for local and foreign companies to explore downstream applications to boost the industry’s economic value,” MIDA said recently. 

Establishing a downstream ecosystem will ensure more value-added products manufactured in the country, which will directly impact its total export status.

“As such, it must be stated that the value of REEs as an important element in the downstream industry value chain should not be ignored, and its ability to leave a mark on the nation’s future technological journey should be acknowledged.

“To continuously support this, MIDA will continue its collaborations with relevant

stakeholders to attract potential investors to develop the industry,” it added. 

The support will focus on downstream manufacturing activities, as well as integrated projects including rare-earth metals manufacturing that can convert oxides into metals. 

“It is for these reasons that MIDA encourages potential investors to explore the business prospects of the REEs ecosystem,” it said.

Zukri

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