Rare Earth Metals: Essential for Modern Technology
Rare earth metals may not be household names, but they play a vital role in many technologies that have become indispensable in modern life. From smart phones to electric cars, rare earth metals are key components that enable the functions and capabilities we have come to expect and rely on daily. However, these metals are facing supply challenges that could impact both present and future innovations.
What are Rare Earth Metals?
Rare earth metals refer to a group of 17 elements in the periodic table – scandium, yttrium, and the lanthanides. Despite their name, rare earth metals are relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust, though they are more widely dispersed and not often found in high concentrations that make mining economically viable. The term “rare earth” is a historical misnomer as these metals were only rarely found in economically exploitable quantities when first discovered.
The key characteristic shared by rare earth metals is that they have similar chemical properties. They tend to be silvery-white and soft, though they harden when heated. Some rare earth metals like cerium are relatively abundant, while others like thulium are very scarce. While not technically rare, they are difficult and expensive to mine due to their geochemical properties.
Importance in Modern Technologies
Rare earth metals play an indispensable role in technologies contemporary lifestyles have come to depend on. Their unique magnetic and electro-optic properties make them essential components in devices such as:
– Smartphones: Rare earth metals are key components in the touchscreens, camera lenses, vibration motors, and batteries of smartphones. Neodymium and lanthanum make the touchscreens responsive while cerium improves camera image quality.
– Electric vehicles: Neodymium and praseodymium are essential to the high-performance magnets used in electric vehicle motors for propulsion and regeneration of energy during braking.
– Wind turbines: Much like electric vehicles, wind turbines rely on neodymium magnets to power their generators efficiently. Rare earth metals help maximize energy capture from wind speed.
– Military equipment: Samarium cobalt and neodymium magnets are critical parts of precision-guided missiles, smart bombs, jet engines and more. Their special properties enable advanced targeting abilities.
– Green energy technology: In addition to wind turbines, rare earth metals improve energy efficiency in photovoltaic solar panels and low-energy light bulbs. Cerium improves glass strength in bulbs.
Geopolitical Supply Challenges
While rare earth metals enable many emerging technologies, stable global supplies are facing new geopolitical risks. Currently, China accounts for over 90% of rare earth mining production worldwide according to the US Geological Survey. However, China has shown a willingness to leverage rare earth supplies as a political tool in disputes. For example, China temporarily reduced rare earth exports to Japan during a maritime dispute in 2010, raising concerns it could do so again with other countries.
In recent years, China’s dominance in rare earth mining has led other nations to explore increasing domestic production or ally with global mining companies. The United States has invested in rare earth mining programs as part of its strategy to onshore critical supply chains. Australia has ramped up rare earth production in cooperation with partners like Lynas Corporation. However, building new mines is a lengthy process that requires overcoming environmental and social risks as well. Global demand for the metals is projected to rise multi-fold in coming decades with expected growth in green technologies.
Environmental Impact of Mining
Any increases in rare earth mining or processing also face serious environmental challenges that must be addressed responsibly. Chinese rare earth mining has been criticized for contamination of local areas with chemical byproducts. Proper handling of mining waste and disposal of wastewater can help reduce environmental impact, but remediation efforts are often lacking. Sites that were mined decades ago in countries like the United States also still contain hazardous radioactive materials from processing that require monitoring and containment.
New extraction methods may offer a way to minimize pollution while satisfying rising demand. Researchers are working on alternatives to open-pit mining such as extracting rare earths from coal ash, mine tailings and even used electronics. Hydrometallurgy techniques like bioleaching employ organisms to solubilize rare earths with lower chemical use. If developed responsibly with stringent oversight, these solutions could enable a greener rare earth mining industry.
As rare earth metals take on growing significance in the technologies driving 21st century progress, stable supplies will be paramount. Both increasing responsible domestic production and developing substitutes or recycling schemes can help address geopolitical vulnerabilities. With coordinated global efforts, a balanced approach may be found that both satisfy technological needs and safeguard people and the environment near mining sites. The essential role of rare earth metals ensures this issue will remain an important one to monitor for businesses, governments and society.