A NASA Terra satellite image of China’s Bayan Obo mine located in China’s Nei Mongol Region, showing two open mines, a number of tailing ponds and tailing piles. Water surfaces are green, vegetation appears red, grassland light is brown and rocks are black. Image acquired July 2, 2001.
Image acquired June 30, 2006
NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using data from the NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team
With names like cerium, lanthanum, and ytterbium, rare earth elements aren’t exactly household names. But the consumer products they are used in—such as magnets, camera lenses, and batteries—certainly are.
There are 17 rare earth elements in all, but these key metals aren’t as rare as the name suggests. (In fact, some are relatively abundant in Earth’s crust.) The vast majority of rare earths—96 percent of the market—come from China. About half come from Bayan Obo, the mine shown above. On July 2, 2001 (top) and June 30, 2006 (bottom), the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired these false-color views of the mine in the Nei Mongol Autonomous Region.
Vegetation appears red, grassland is light brown, rocks are black, and water surfaces are green. Two circular open-pit mines are visible, as well as a number of tailings ponds and tailings piles. Use the image comparison tool to see how the mine has grown larger since 2001. According to a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report, China produced about 81,000 tons of rare earth metals in 2001; the number jumped to about 120,000 by 2006.