High-Tech Society Drives Demand for China's Rare Earth Metals

By Eliza Strickland | October 15, 2010 6:20 pm

rare-earthRare earth metals are a hot commodity in today’s high-tech world. Until recently these elements were fairly obscure members of the periodic table; now, their usefulness in everything from hybrid cars to solar panels has boosted their profile.

The 17 rare earth metals, some with exotic names like lanthanum and europium, form unusually strong lightweight magnetic materials. Lanthanum is used in the batteries of hybrid cars, neodymium is used in magnets in the electric generators of wind turbines and europium is used in colored phosphors for energy-efficient lighting. [Reuters]

Their new necessity has also provided a boost to China, where the vast majority of these elements are currently mined. China’s dominance has been brought into sharp focus over the past three weeks, when China blocked all shipments of rare earth metals to Japan in response to a diplomatic incident concerning a Chinese fishing boat in territorially disputed waters.

Beijing has denied the embargo, yet the lack of supply may soon disrupt manufacturing in Japan, trade and industry minister Akihiro Ohata told reporters Tuesday. [Technology Review]

Despite the name, rare earth elements are actually fairly common in the Earth’s crust. But they’re often difficult to extract profitably without making an environmental mess, and in recent years production has largely shifted to China. The extraction of the metals can be plenty dirty in China too, but environmental regulations aren’t yet stringent there.

In response to the abrupt halt in the export of rare earth metals to Japan, trade officials from the United States and Japan are discussing whether to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, Technology Review reports that companies are scrambling to find ways to reduce their reliance on these elements: some car companies are developing motors that don’t use rare earth elements at all, while the U.S. Energy Department is funding research on making powerful magnets out of more prosaic materials.

And there’s one final option for avoiding China’s monopoly: Mine more rare earths here at home.

In California, Molycorp Minerals is looking to reopen rare-earth mines that closed in 2002, amidst low pricing and environmental concerns. In recent weeks, bills have been floated in the U.S. House and Senate aimed at reviving the rare-earth supply chain in the U.S., including mining, refining, and manufacturing. A third bill, in the House, is narrower, focusing on offering loan guarantees to restart mining. [Technology Review]

Related Content:
80beats: Nobel Prize Winner Warns World: We’re Running Out of Helium
80beats: New Element Discovered! But Don’t Ask About Its Name
80beats: China’s Latest Environmental Ills: Oil Spills and Copper Mines
80beats: Isn’t It Ironic: Green Tech Relies on Dirty Mining in China

Image: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • B

    i can see it now, all of china takes off into space

  • B

    Carbon coordinate compounds can do most of the things that rare earth metals are known to accomplish. A carbon coordinate compound known as graphene may be used in place of copper and silver for micro-electrical wiring. And minute crystals of carbon have been known to extend the spectrum and sensitivity of solar cells. Carbon coordinate compounds are also known to be stronger than steel per equivalent weight. Unfortunately, science still
    has not found the molecular formula and method of synthesis for arachnid silk.

  • OhOhSayCanYouSee

    Rare Earth Elements do MUCH MORE than supply ‘Green Technology” needs.
    Uses range from mundane (lighter flints, glass polishing) to high-tech (phosphors, lasers, magnets, batteries, magnetic refrigeration) to futuristic (high-temperature superconductivity, safe storage and transport of hydrogen for a post-hydrocarbon economy).
    They are also used in the production of color cathode-ray tubes and liquid-crystal displays used in computer monitors and televisions employ europium as the red phosphor. Ce oxide is uniquely suited as a polishing agent for glass.
    Then there is Fiber-optic telecommunication cables, which you use to call home, or contact a business client.
    Of course, permanent magnet technology has been revolutionized by alloys containing Nd, Sm, Gd, Dy, or Pr. Small, lightweight, high-strength REE magnets have allowed miniaturization of numerous electrical and electronic components used in appliances, audio and video equipment, computers, automobiles, communications systems, and military gear. Many recent technological innovations already taken for granted (for example, miniaturized multi-gigabyte portable disk drives and DVD drives) would not be possible without REE magnets. Think… how could you even read and answer this blog without a hard drive?
    So… yea, Rare Earth Elements are used for Green Technology. But that’s JUST the Tip of the Iceberg.

  • http://www.electricshowerlab.com Electric Shower ·

    msot computer monitors these days are already using LCD technology and some are LED-LCD *,;

  • Kiera Dohrman

    PS — they must also look at our Messiaen video APPARITION OF THE ETERNAL CHURCH (search on your brand to discover)

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