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Sourcing "Rare Earth" Elements

A jumpstart for the safe and fair sourcing of some of our most precious materials.

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Rare Earth photo by Roo Reynolds

Photo by Roo Reynolds

This autumn, China imposed, and then lifted, restrictions on exports of “rare earths”—17 elements essential to the manufacture of high-tech and green energy products. The news galvanized efforts to increase recycling and develop alternative sourcing of these elements.

Rare earth elements are commonly found in wind and solar energy generators and in products ranging from iPhones and hard drives to automobile windows and permanent magnets. A Toyota Prius, for example, contains at least two pounds of rare earths; an advanced wind turbine, roughly 660 pounds of the rare earth element neodymium.

China now supplies more than 90 percent of rare earths to global manufacturers, in large
part because extraction of rare earths in China is cheaper than in countries with stricter environmental protection laws. Although rare earth minerals occur worldwide, extracting them involves the risk of environmental contamination from the radioactive metals that accompany most deposits and from chemicals used in processing. Going from discovery to production takes up to 15 years.

A shortage of rare earths could drive up prices and slow down the development and production of green technologies. Japan is moving forward with the recycling of rare earth elements from used electronics and exploring new manufacturing processes that do not require rare earths.

The U.N. Environmental Programme’s chief, Achim Steiner, told the AFP News Service that there is “a strategic as much as an environmental or an economic rationale” for developing a recycling economy of rare earth elements.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill authorizing research funding and broadening government-backed loans for rare earth development, saying the elements are critical to energy, military, and manufacturing technologies. The bill aims to make the United States self-sufficient in five years.

The Department of Energy is developing a strategy to increase U.S. production, find substitute materials, and use rare earths more efficiently. The Pentagon will also complete a study of the military’s reliance on the materials.

“We are certainly putting our country at risk in terms of our national security and our economic security if we don’t do something to ensure that we have an adequate supply,” Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (Pa.) told the Financial Times.

 


Rik Langendoen wrote this article for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.

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