Having played host to one of the earliest gold mines in the country, a small dusty town in Mbeya Region is poised to become a significant producer of rare earth elements.
Some 189 kilometres from the district centre in Chunya, to the east of the Lake Rukwa, on the edge of the East African Rift Valley, there lies one of the largest and highest grade rare earth deposits in the world. Rare earth is a mineral that contains more rare earth elements as major metal components.
It consists of 17 elements on the periodic table, including 15 elements beginning with atomic number 57 (lanthanum) and extending through number 71 (lutetium), as well as two other elements having similar properties (yttrium and scandium). These are referred to as “rare” because although relatively abundant in total quantity, they appear in low concentrations in the earth’s crust and extraction and processing is both difficult and costly.
According to a study conducted in 2013 by Marc Humphries, a Specialist in Energy Policy based in United States, rare earth elements share many similar properties, which is why they occur together in geological deposits. The 17 rare earth elements (REEs) are found in all rare earth element deposits but their distribution and concentrations vary.
They are referred to as “rare” because it is not common to find them in commercially viable concentrations. According to Eng Donald Mremi, the Resident Mines Officer in Chunya, “China is the largest producer of the rare earth minerals in the world. China has the largest deposits of the elements.
This has enabled her to become the superpower in production of the electronic utensils.” His views are supported by a report titled “Dominating the World, China and the Rare Earth Industry” from the National Institute of the Advanced Studies in Bangalore, India.
Their 2013 report explains that, “More recently China has established a dominant position in the global Rare Earths Industry. “It effectively controls the entire global supply chain in Rare Earths. This control extends all the way from mining to the production of key intermediate products such as magnets.