Rare earth, what an intriguing name for a material. Isn’t it almost fantastical? It is a label for a group of elements of the periodic table – 17 metals – that have been isolated from certain mineral ores in which they concentrate. Some of them are relatively abundant but it seems that all are difficult to mine and extract, hence their rareness.
Applications for these substances are increasing steadily in our increasingly “techno” world. They are found in rechargeable batteries and all the portable equipment that uses them (e.g. computers, cell phones, music players); small strong magnets – also with myriad uses; hybrid cars, lasers, fiber optics, wind turbines, X-ray machines, guided missiles, fluorescent lamps, catalytic converters, super conductors. Some are used as pigments for glass and ceramics.
Most of the world’s rare earth materials are exported from China currently (95%!) where mining has been cheaper and with less environmental regulation. Just recently China has begun severely restricting shipments, causing panic among buyers, chiefly the U.S. and Japan. Reasons may be environmental protection, economic control, overexploitation of resources, cracking down on illegal mining, etc.
Japan, with few resources of their own, has already begun mining of a different sort. Urban mining is reaping rare earth and other valuable metals like gold, from piles of old electronics. A reputable study* estimated that their e-trash could hold 10% of the world’s reserves in some metals. Jeez. . .
scenes from WALL-E. May the government and corporate forces be early investors – urban mining, worldwide industry of the future!
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Barbara Hirsch, recording engineer, eco-person
“Unless someone like you cares a whole lot,
nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
– The Lorax, Children’s book by Dr. Seuss
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