Rethinking Our Risky Reliance on Rare Earth Metals

Our reliance on rare earth minerals, used in everything from smartphones to clean tech, is leaving us exposed to future risks.

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China has a virtual monopoly on rare earths, thanks to mines like this one in inner Mongolia

From our smartphones to our latest weaponry, the technology that underpins modern life would be impossible without rare earth metals. The importance of rare earths has only grown as emerging markets increase their demand for technologies made with it, as does the renewable energy industry. Now a new study from researchers at Yale has found that many of the materials used in high-tech products, including rare earth metals, have no satisfactory substitutes, underscoring not only our vulnerable reliance on them, but also the need to better manage these crucial resources.

Despite the name, rare earth metals—which include exotically-named elements like yttrium and dysprosium—are not in fact rare. The 17 metallic elements are common in the earth’s crust, but the techniques used to extract and refine them is labor-intensive, environmentally hazardous and increasingly costly. Thomas Gradael, a professor of geology and geophysics at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, explains that the “criticality” of rare earths were only recently understood after China, which dominates the world’s supply of the minerals, cut exports by 40% in 2010, citing concerns over how polluting the rare earth industry was (though it maintained domestic supply levels). The subsequent price shock as the supply of the metals dropped was a wake up call for governments and those in the industry. “The challenge made people realize they had been buying materials from around the world without paying attention to where it was coming from and the geopolitical constraints affecting them,” says Gradael.

(MORE: More on Rare Earths: Looking for a Way out From Under a Monopoly)

Along with colleagues at Yale, Gradael decided to investigate the metals used in modern technologies to determine if there were viable substitutes. “Twenty or thirty years ago electronics were being made with 11 different elements,” explains Gradael. Today’s computers and smartphones use something like 63 different elements.” Their findings, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that there were no “readily apparent” substitutes for a metal that would not compromise on quality or performance. Though corporations have kept much of the current use of metals as close trade secrets, most of today’s advanced technologies rely on a rich array of materials, including rare earths, to achieve the precise performance. “We could go back to making electronics with 11 elements, but we would get the performance we had in 1990,” says Gradael.

While we are not running out of rare earths yet, what could be a problem is the amount of energy and money required to extract them—to a point where it could no longer be economically viable to use them as part of modern industrial design. This also has problems, as the use of rare earths has allowed designers to employ a wider pallet of materials to improve efficiency and produce more environmentally friendly designs, as seen in more efficient modern jet engines. Rare earths have also become important to renewable energy technology: neodymium, terbium and dysprosium are used in the magnets of wind turbines and electric and hybrid cars contain about 10 to 15 pounds more of rare earths than a standard car.

(MORE: Raring to Fight: The U.S. Tangles with China over Rare-Earth Exports)

However increased mining for these scarce resources can have some nasty side effects for the environment. China, which has intensively mined for rare earths with little regulation, allowing it to dominate the global industry since 1990, has acknowledged the incredible environmental harm caused by the process. “Excessive rare earth mining has resulted in landslides, clogged rivers, environmental pollution emergencies and even major accidents and disasters, causing great damage to people’s safety and health and the ecological environment,” read a white paper issued by the Chinese cabinet in June last year. The government is now spending billions of dollars attempting to clean up this damage, and on Dec. 13 Beijing signalled once again that it would seek to cut exports of rare earths—although some critics have accused China of using environmental concerns as an excuse to use its control of the rare earths market to punish countries it doesn’t like, such as Japan.

Recycling metal has been advocated by some as a possible way of managing these precious resources—the European Parliament adopted a law curbing dumping of electric waste in 2012, meaning member states will need to collect 45 tons of e-waste for every 100 tons of electronic goods sold in the previous three years by 2016. But Gradael says that for rare earths, recycling will have little impact until our use of these materials first plateaus, as there will not be enough in the recycling stream to keep up with future demand. Instead, Gradael hopes that product designers, material scientists and engineers will fully take into account the risks and limitations of relying on such resources in the future and design new products accordingly. Until that innovation comes, we’ll continue to be exposed to the environmental damage, geopolitical scares and  price shocks that come with being reliant on rare earths.

(MORE: Shoring Up the Elements of a Clean Tech Economy)