What’s the News: Researchers have found high concentrations of rare earth metals, essential materials for making nearly all high-tech electronics, in mud on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, according to study published online earlier this week in Nature Geoscience. These huge deposits could help satisfy ever-increasing demand for rare earth metals, but there are major questions about the economic viability and ecological effects of mining the seabed.
Renewable energy, information technology, and many other industries are in a political and economic bind—they require the obscure periodic table denizens called rare earth metals, and nearly all the world’s supply of those elements comes from China. But now, for the first time in years, rare earth elements will be mined at an American site. The mining company Molycorp says it has the permits in hand to reopen a mine in Mountain Pass, California, that could soon meet much of the U.S. demand for these elements.
The materials that come out of Mountain Pass will be used to make high-strength magnets necessary for electric vehicle engines, wind turbines, and a variety of other high-tech products. However, the U.S. possesses neither the technology nor the licensing to manufacture the neodymium-iron-boron alloy necessary for their production. As such, Molycorp has partnered with Japanese firm Hitachi Metals to manufacture the magnets in the United States. [Popular Science]
After its projected 2012 opening, the Molycorp mine should produce about 20,000 tons of material per year, the company says. Right now the world’s demand stands at about 125,000 tons per year, and Technology Review reports that this number could jump to 225,000 in five years. China has a stranglehold on the rare earth market, meaning political maelstroms could disrupt the supply.
Rare 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]
Wind 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].