Isn't It Ironic: Green Tech Relies on Dirty Mining in China

By Eliza Strickland | December 28, 2009 5:56 pm

dysprosiumWind turbines, energy-efficient light bulbs, and hybrid cars and three of the most iconic products in the lineup of green technologies that can help us build a cleaner world. But in an ironic twist, these technologies all rely on elements called rare earths, which are primarily extracted from environmentally destructive mines in China.

The environmental damage can be seen in the red-brown scars of barren clay that run down narrow valleys and the dead lands below, where emerald rice fields once grew. Miners scrape off the topsoil and shovel golden-flecked clay into dirt pits, using acids to extract the rare earths. The acids ultimately wash into streams and rivers, destroying rice paddies and fish farms and tainting water supplies [The New York Times].

Despite the name, many of the 17 rare earth elements are not actually that scarce, but two heavy rare earths that are vitally important to many green technologies, dysprosium and terbium, do live up to their name. More than 99 percent of the world’s supply of these two elements is currently mined in China. Companies want to expand production outside China, but most rare-earth deposits, unlike those in southern China, are accompanied by radioactive uranium and thorium that complicate mining [The New York Times].

Putting small amounts of dysprosium in the magnets used in electric motors can make the magnets 90 percent lighter; that’s a boon for both hybrid electric cars and large wind turbines, where heavy turbines are placed at the tops of tall towers. Meanwhile, terbium is used in lighting systems that are dramatically more energy-efficient than traditional incandescent lighting. But as prices of these elements have soared in recent years, and as concerns about China’s mines are increasing, companies are beginning to investigate other ways to build the technologies of the future.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • Carter

    When I get my degree, I might want to go to grad school to study or invent methods of environmentally friendly mining. Let’s face it: our awesome technologies require resources to be efficient and powerful, but there must be a solution to acquiring these resources without highly erosive and polluting strip-mining methods.

  • Jason

    The only environmentally freindly mining would be of the moon(s), other planets, meteors and asteroids

  • Bill White

    What makes you think we can mine on the Moon, or elsewhere, and not mess up the environment? We humans have a pretty poor track record. Look at all the junk we have in Earth orbit. Maybe mining on the Moon won’t mess up the Earth, but it will certainly clutter up the Moon and affect the people eventually living there!

  • Kin

    Uhh…Bill. You might want to think things through, about what he was trying to say.
    But,

    Anyway it’s a far out idea because transportation costs (even in environmental terms) getting to the moon and back.

  • Aladdin

    The pollution problem is due to TOO MANY HUMANS on this planet. Caused by people who disallow birth control (usually due to religious views developed back when mother/infant mortality was high and religious leaders wanted many babies to spread their religions). Look at countries where Islam and Catholicism are predominate. POLLUTION is caused by people who want (don’t really need) a lot of STUFF, and convenience. In the ’50s each American upper middle class home had a phone and a TV and a vehicle; Now every family member (even on welfare) have those….as do Europeans, many Asians.
    So pollution is caused by too many people who are ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’ minded. My family has a vehicle for each adult driver too,plus a spare, so we participate in this.
    Extremely poor cultures (developing and underdeveloped) countries, and immigrants from those places, and numerous (not all) people of the above religions, see children as old age social security, and those countries’ attitudes won’t change anytime soon. So, allow people who want it, to have access to birth control. It is a LOT cheaper than paying birth to grave medical and school costs and these people’s consumer needs that drain the Earth’s limited resources.
    The other reason for too many people (besides restrictive attitudes about access to birth control and abortion) is not allowing women to be educated. In a number of conservative Christian sects, Islamic Sects, and simply poverty in poor countries, keep women out of schools. It has been shown statistically, that when women have access to education and contraception, the birth rate of that county / region decreases.

  • Carter

    @Aladdin:

    I agree with you about the major issues underlying pollution problems. As my personal hero Edward Abbey once wrote (and I paraphrase): population control is vital in reducing poverty and squalor, as well as overcrowding of urban areas and pollution, and can be done in humane ways. Namely, through attrition.

    I doubt cultures like our own American one can be changed to reduce people’s expectations of what they want (at least in the short run), but education goes a long way in at least making people more interested in environmental issues and more likely to use family planning and birth control. After this, to make our Earth produce sustainably to take care of all humans, we must first solve the food supply issue. Populations too high in regions where food production is exceedingly difficult and/or underdeveloped are the main cause of malnutrition and famine. Aid can be supplied to these regions, or technological solutions can be supplied to help food production there. Either way, there’s plenty of food grown on the planet, but it never can make its way to the most needy. However, in order to have a sustainable relation between the human population and the Earth, we may need to look toward limiting food production, thereby limiting population growth. People won’t starve; in theory the distribution problem will be solved, but people won’t have as many children, and we won’t outgrow the planet. Will such goals be accomplished in our lifetimes? Doubt it. In our grandchildren’s lifetimes? I sure hope so.

    But back to the actual discussion about environmentally sound mining techniques: Pollution is part of the problem, but as I read it, erosion and destruction of habitat seem to be even more pervasive in such strip-mining practices. Even with population control, family planning, and all other means of controlling what and how much people consume, our technology will continue to advance and more people will gain access to technologies that require rare earths and other elements. We can recycle so much from old appliances, but to meet the world’s demands for high-tech gadgets we will need more (unfortunately). I’m a manic optimist, thus I am predisposed to hoping that there are methods that can minimize the environmental damage caused by extraction of these materials. Perhaps that means pulling NEOs into Earth’s orbit and mining them, perhaps it means better methods than strip-mining to control erosion. Humans are great engineers and could solve these problems, but will the lure of greater profit margins drive us to ignore these problems and pay little attention to their solutions?

  • Guy

    One word. “recycle” Rare Earth elements are not that rare. they are more abundant in the crust than copper or aluminum.

  • Dane

    At last there is someone who sees the real problem. Aladdin is 100% correct that no amount of enviro, green optomism will ever solve the prime issue of pollution = too many people. Unfortunately limiting population is not something any politician would ever suggest. The world needs more thinking realists, not optomistic greenies.

  • http://engagingenergy.com Ian Falconer

    Recycling of REEs rare earth Elements) has not been possible until very recently. The metallurgy needed to get these elements back out of, mainly electronic, waste just didn’t exist. Where copper and aluminum are used as relatively pure metals, REEs are used in compounds, usually oxides, and mixed with many other elements. The more pressing issue is that recycling will not actually do any good until the tech niches have been populated by material to be recycled.
    Until you tear down those 100,000 wind turbines or electric motors in 25 years or so, you won’t get the magnets back to recycle. In the mean time other technologies may need access to the REEs.
    Re mining
    In order to get at any element, mines are inevitably destructive. You have to destroy the rock to refine it into useful constituents. There is no way around that. We miners (yes, I am a miner by trade and qualification) have a truism that goes along the lines of ‘if you can’t hunt it or farm it, you have to mine it’.
    Various companies are looking at biorefining (using plants to concentrate elements in biomass that can then be processed), but you still have to dig the rock up to expose it to the biorefining mechanism. In situ processing, as done with uranium in Wyoming, has its own critics and hazards.
    I agree more recycling should be done & more efficiently, but until recycling is 100% efficient we will still need metal mines. Coal mines are a different argument for a different day..
    PS Jason there are groups out there that are opposed to mining in space on environmental grounds.

  • Mary

    In light of this revelation, the professional journalists at DISCOVER would be doing the world a favor by rating all the environmental pros and cons of CFLs, wind turbines and hybrid vehicles so consumers can make choices based on facts instead of hype.

  • Dave E.

    I’d have to agree that there are too many humans. The world is eventually not going to be able to produce enough food for us. Birth control is an option, but if people would be smart there would be a lot less suprises, and less of a need for birth control. I mean birth control besides abortion, which, is a little extreme. We don’t need a scenario like the one in the book “The Giver.”

  • http://myscripts.id.lv/100500 Norberto Casal

    Recently, My partner and i didnt offer plenty of thing to consider to making comments on site page articles and have placed feedback even a lot less. Studying by way of your own pleasant publish, will help myself to do this occasionally.

  • http://www.howtobeatanxiety.org natural remedies for anxiety

    I think this whole Green thing is more hype and PR than anything. With government subsidies the industry can stand, but without them it would fall flat on its face.

  • JimInMT

    Mary said: “so consumers can make choices based on facts instead of hype”
    That would work, if the government weren’t hell-bent on destroying all the other, older alternatives by outlawing them (light bulbs for example). I am endlessly and sadly fascinated by the LACK of “choice” offered by the Pro-choice crowd, and angry that their “choice” becomes the ONLY “choice”. Sadly, too, they misuse terms everywhere: if they were true to the INTENT of “choice”, they’d have used the term “alternative”, and when a “choice” is made, the term “selection” would be more appropriate. A culture is lost when its language is destroyed: ask any “native” tribe in North America, even Siberia, and they will agree.

  • CR Joli

    I have lived on the moon for 600 years and would not look kindly to earthlings starting to mine there!!!

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