Illustration redesigned by Devin Thorpe
When rare earth elements hit the news, it’s often in the context of trade disputes. Many people are aware of these obscure rocks peripherally, and may even know that they’re involved in technology somehow. But it’s fair to say that most consumers have no idea how much these trace minerals impact their daily life, not to mention the planet’s health. If more people knew how rare earth mining impacts the environment, they might make different choices about what tech they buy and how they use it.
What Are Rare Earth Elements?
Rare earth elements are also known as REEs. They aren’t rare in the sense that they’re hard to find, like platinum or emeralds. In fact, REEs appear all over the world in fairly plentiful quantities. However, they’re usually bound up with other elements, like uranium and thorium, and require laborious extractions. There are no great veins of yttrium, for example.
About seventeen of these elements exist, fifteen of which appear on the bottom row of the Periodic Table. They include lanthanide elements like neodymium, lithium, yttrium, and scandium.
The Uses of Rare Earth Elements
REEs appear in almost every piece of lightweight modern technology, including phones, lenses, and, critically, most green tech. Electric vehicles and wind turbines both need magnets made from REEs. A modern Prius has up to thirty pounds of various rare earth materials inside of it and the average EV might have more than four pounds in the engine alone.
Many power and electronics applications, including generating electricity and writing to discs, require magnets. REEs happen to be excellent for this purpose. Anyone who hasn’t personally witnessed the power of neodymium can experiment with magnets available at hardware stores. However, there are other uses for REEs that are just as important. Terbium, for example, makes your smartphone vibrate.
Where Do They Come From?
During World War II, REEs came from Brazil and India. But the U.S. wanted its own source, and the Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine became its critical source from the 1960s to the 1980s. In the 90s, Chinese companies bought up most of the production and moved it offshore. Ninety-seven percent of rare earth elements are now mined in China. Due to lax environmental regulations, producers can extract and refine REEs there very cheaply. However, because of the geopolitical implications of China’s control over such a critical resource, new mines will soon open in Australia and Brazil, among other places.
Rare earth elements used to appear fairly close to the surface of the Earth, but humans have increasingly mined out accessible areas. As REEs become harder to extract, there is even discussion about mining them from the ocean floor. But for now, REEs come from open-pit mines. Extractors process them chemically, which usually involves an acid bath meant to separate the elements within the ore. Where this acid goes afterward depends on local environmental regulations…or lack thereof.
An Ecological Disaster In Every Circuit
The process of mining REEs is ecologically devastating. Processing one ton of rare earth metals releases 2,000 tons of radioactive materials, carcinogens, toxic compounds, acids, and other pollutants into the environment. Since thorium and uranium often occur alongside REEs in nature, tailings from mines tend to be radioactive. The powerful acids required to extract REEs from their rocky homes can’t be disposed of in a way that’s truly safe. The mining process also consumes tons upon tons of water.
There’s no need to live next to such an ecological disaster to feel the effects. Mining is heavy work, and the machinery that it requires runs primarily on diesel. The scale of these operations, plus the blatant lack of concern for the environment within this industry, means lots and lots of extra carbon in our atmosphere.
The problem is that REEs are critically important. Without them, even the green tech that we need to avoid catastrophic warming wouldn’t work. That’s why it’s time to get creative with mining alternatives.
To reduce our reliance on these ecologically disastrous substances, we’ll need to combine a conscious choice of environmentally safe technology and, potentially, a willingness to endure a smartphone, and other gadgets, that aren’t quite the latest model.
Magnets, a major use of rare earth elements, are highly recyclable. Prying them out of their housings is simply a matter of getting to them, and after that, they can be reused indefinitely. The rare earth components in smaller electronics could someday be recycled as well. Unfortunately, current recycling methods are either very expensive, environmentally unsound, or both. Research continues worldwide on how to recover REEs responsibly.
There’s one electric car brand that doesn’t rely on rare earth magnets: Tesla. Most Teslas use induction motors, which don’t require magnets. The downside is that induction motors aren’t as strong or as long-lasting as those that rely on magnets. As always, the cheap, quick fix for a tech problem is convenient, but not sustainable. Disappointingly, some Tesla cars have capitulated to the demand for range. The Model 3 Long Range uses a permanent magnet motor.
Stretching The Tech Life Cycle
Your phone does not give out every eighteen months. However, that’s about how often Apple comes out with a new device. The rush to buy these consumer fetish items drives a cycle of pollution. One of the best ways to minimize the environmental impact of the REEs in your phone is to simply keep it. You may be surprised by how long it lasts.
This can feel like a big ask with 5G right around the corner. If it helps, consider the fact that 5G early adopters may not see much speed improvement anyway.
If 5G isn’t a particular consideration for you, or if your concern for the environment outweighs your desire for a sparkling new phone, then buying refurbished might be an ideal option. Experts can give old phones new life with just a couple of new parts, stretching the usefulness of the REEs in your device. As more electric cars appear on the used market, it may be a good idea to consider buying those, too.
Unfortunately, many phones aren’t made to be repaired. This leads to the best strategy for combating REE-derived pollution: rethink the entire technology manufacturing process as we know it.
Build To Repair
Most phones aren’t made to be fixed. Once the battery on an Apple device goes, so does the machine. Laptop keyboards are often irreparable and spell doom for the entire device. Re-soldering new parts onto a motherboard is so time-consuming that manufacturers assume that nobody will do it, even though motherboard repair is possible. In short, tech manufacturers don’t build repairable items.
But repairable tech is possible, as evidenced by the existence of the popular European Fairphone. Although its focus has historically been on conflict metals like gold and tungsten, this company proves that building high-end tech items for repair is possible.
Escaping The Mining Trap
Green tech will require REEs. Giving up new cell phones will help stifle demand, but it’s likely that REE dependence will only increase as humanity converts to carbon-neutral energy.
That doesn’t mean that we’re helpless. As with most other things ecological, it is clear that controlling REEs is a matter of controlling our own consumption. The REE problem would be much more manageable if the tech cycle were thirty-two months instead of eighteen, if all phones featured replaceable batteries, and if consumers opted for refurbished models.
Unless that happens, tech companies are just going to keep digging.