Modern technology's unfortunate metallic secret

Rare earth metals are vital for many advanced technologies, but controversies surrounding their mining are becoming increasingly common knowledge.

 
  California's Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine, which once supplied the majority of the world's rare earth metals,  closed  last month.   Ken Lund/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0, modified)

California's Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine, which once supplied the majority of the world's rare earth metals, closed last month. Ken Lund/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0, modified)

 

This is an editorial for Issue 2 by Lateral editor-in-chief Jack Scanlan. Yeah, he uses a smartphone.

While putting together Issue Two of Lateral, with its the theme of "Underground", it became an obvious choice to devote some space to the mining of rare earth elements.

The issue of the availability and mining of rare earth minerals has been gaining prominence in recent years. Under the shadow of anthropogenic climate change, there's been increased scrutiny of current- and previous-generation power sources and manufacturing technologies, chiefly those using coal or petroleum. Such environmentally-destructive practices are slowly being replaced with those that are "greener", but an important question easily sneaks into one's head: What if these new technologies secretly damage the environment too?

Barring pseudoscientific red herrings such as wind turbine syndrome, rare earth metals are a seemingly perfect focus for anti-green backlash, as they underpin a substantial number of sustainable power generation techniques and follow-on practices. They also have unique, specialised roles in other forms of modern technology, such as smartphones, computers and lighting. Controversies surrounding their mining have been readily reported by the media for years; their profile is rising, and it's not hard to see why.

For such an important group of metallic elements, the rare earths have a pretty misleading name, as they're not particularly scare in the Earth's crust. In fact, they're more abundant than gold, silver and platinum (precious metals, all), with some reaching the abundance of copper, a metal no one considers very rare. What the name refers to instead is the distribution and nature of the minerals that contain rare earths; compared to other elements, their mineral deposits are widely dispersed, low yield, and therefore rarely economical to mine in significant quantities. 

Of the 17 rare earth elements, one of the better-known is neodymium, which can be fashioned into incredibly strong magnets. These strong, permanent magnetic properties and relatively low weight make neodymium indispensable in the production of high-end audio equipment, wind turbines and electric motors. Where previously magnets were large and heavy, they can now be small and light, opening up many technological possibilities that were formerly inaccessible. Two other rare earths – lanthanum and cerium – are used as alloys in high-capacity batteries, and play crucial roles in industrial catalysts. 

All rare earths have unique physical and chemical properties that make them particularly suited to certain applications. This is great for the efficiency of processes that use them, but it also means, in many cases, they can't be swapped out for other metals if there's a shortage. So if you don't have enough neodymium, nothing else will really do.

As mentioned, these metals aren't uncommon in the Earth's crust, but there are substantial challenges in extracting them from the ground. Currently, the vast majority of rare earths are mined in China, from incredibly polluted industrial cities and towns. The mining can produce huge amounts of toxic waste products, including heavy metals and radioactive elements. Improper management of waste, as appears to be occurring in China, can leave the environment deeply scarred.

The low cost of mining in China, combined with looser environmental regulations than places like the US and Australia, is producing a global near-monopoly in production. Western rare earth mining operations are fighting an uphill battle to get off the ground, with some preclaiming the war already lost. In August, the only rare earth mine in the US, Mountain Pass, closed for the second time, and the Mt Weld site in Western Australia is struggling. As such, the vast majority of rare earths – commodities increasing in demand year upon year – are being produced in an environmentally-destructive way, and it seems unlikely that this will change in the near future. 

Having close to only a single source for such an important group of metals is also generating geo-political tension. As the US government is well aware, there are numerous military applications for rare earths. China's hold on the market caused a panic in 2010 when it capped its exports of the metals, causing prices to skyrocket, and leading many to wonder what would happen if the supply from China ever dried up. Could western mines open in time, or would the manufacture of advanced technologies simply be put on hold until the rare earths flowed once more? It is still an open question for the international community. 

So what holds for the future? While status-quo mining may not willingly change in the coming decades, other methods for getting our rare earth fix have been proposed. Recycling rare earth elements from used technology ticks a lot of boxes, but economic considerations are currently preventing its widespread application. Deep-sea mining has some scientists excited, but has yet to be put into practice. Even more fancifully, Russia seems keen to exploit the Moon's rare earth resources, but – like asteroid mining – getting things back from the Moon is almost in the realm of pure science-fiction. 

It is inevitable that there will be trade-offs in the implementation of new technologies. A reliance on rare earth metals seems like a stumbling block for the replacement of coal and oil power, but there are larger problems at play, like global climate change. Balancing localised problems against future catastrophes is always tough. But until then, what else can we do? Wait for science to catch up. 

By Jack Scanlan

Jack is the Editor-in-Chief of Lateral.