One of the most important set of materials on the planet is one that many of us have either never heard about or were just recently made aware of their existence, rare earth elements. They have bazar names like praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium. They have strange and unique properties like being forever magnetized or posing natural luminescent abilities that never fade. So, what are these elements really and why are they so important to us?
First off, the term “rare earth element” is a bit misleading as these elements are not actually rare in the environment but rather picked up that moniker because they are very evenly spread over the planet so finding high concentrations for mining is difficult. The importance of these elements cannot be overestimated as they are key components to everything from your car to your TV to your phone. Every electronic device you have that has a micro-chip has rare earth elements as part of its construction. Without these materials we would not have computers, cell phones or even walked on the moon. These elements are vital to our current society and as we continue to digitize society, they need for them continues to grow rapidly.
The other vital area rare earth elements are used is our renewable energy future. That’s right, everything from solar, to wind, to hydroelectric, to electric vehicles all require these materials to be constructed. They are used in the generators of wind turbines and hydroelectric plants; they are part of the solar array inside many solar panel designs and are a vital component to the engines in electric cars. Without rare earth elements to satisfy the exploding demand for these products our green renewable future is simply not possible.
And therein lies our problem! If you look at the commitments world leaders have made in the expansion of electric vehicles and the replacement of fossil fuels with wind, geothermal and solar, it will require the expansion of rare earth element production by 1,000 times today’s levels. That’s not the only bad news…
90% of all rare earth element mining is done in three countries, China, The Congo, and Australia. With China owning a whopping 70% of mining production.
87% of all the complex refining of rare earth elements is controlled by China so one of the West’s largest adversaries dominates the market in both the acquisition and mining of these incredibly important materials.
This forces the US to import approximately 80% of our rare earth element needs from China.
To open in mining operation in developed countries it takes an average of 16 years from identifying an area of land rich enough to the actual first mining operations can start.
Trying to accelerate the opening of new mines is no easy task because of the environmental impact that these operations can have. In addition to bringing up the desired elements there are other more nefarious materials that join them. Uranium and Thorium. These are two highly radioactive materials with half lives of thousands of years. Potential sites must be carefully studied by a host of scientists from geologists to biologists to determine if and how these materials can be safely extracted without contaminating ground water or the greater environment.
There is also the issue of the refining process that is extremely complex, takes very specialized machinery and is something most developed nations outside of Australia have lost expertise in.
In addition, the refining process is not without its hazard issues. To separate the desired elements from the rest of the mined material, including those radioactive elements, they are submerged in a mix of toxic chemicals that dissolves any organic material. Once that happens more chemicals are added one at a time to allow each element to float based off its own relative atomic mass and they are simply skimmed off one by one.
Moral of the story is that for every ton of rare earth elements produced, 2,000 tons of radioactive and toxic chemical byproducts are produced.
Now all this is not to say that we should abandon renewable energy and electric cars because despite all the pitfalls these solutions still pollute the environment much less than our other fossil fuel options. The point is that we need to understand what these renewables require and go in with our eyes wide open of how truly difficult this transition will be, and rare earth elements are one of the hidden obstacles to that greener future. It’s also to help hold our government accountable when they project some grand plan for 2030 that 40% of the cars on the road will be electric or that by 2050, we will be carbon neutral through wind, solar and geothermal; HOW? You cannot build anything without the materials to do so. No skyscraper has ever been built without steel and concrete so how are we going to build this renewable future without some of the most key metals and minerals needed to accomplish it?
This is not all doom and gloom as this issue has become more mainstream over the past few months and the war in Ukraine has accelerated the conversation. Recently Biden pledged to diversify our supply of these elements outside of China. The problem is not many options today. He also pledged $2B to do so which is a major step forward, but the reality is developing nations will need to spend TRILLIONS on the mining and refining of these materials over the next several years if any of the world’s emission goals are to be met. There is also budding new technology that has promise to take more basic materials easier to mine and refine and instill within them the properties we need for these products.
As the way we look at all these issues is there are many challenges to bring us a new brave green world where we find a better balance with our environment and climate but brining the challenges to the forefront is our job. Let you know what it will take to get there and that the path is not as rosy as some in government and corporate America will have you think. To get there it will take massive investment and focus of major governments around thew world and more importantly the will of US to force that change.
We can do it together!