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Reinventing the Wheel - The Question of “Rare” Earths

By x356039 - June 26, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Rare earths often have the same effect on a conversation on renewable energy as a bucket of cold water to the face. With China's near-total monopoly on their production and refinement coupled with their necessity for producing green energy technology such as wind turbines many see rare earths as a question of trading Saudi oil barons for Chinese mining magnates. Others decry the environmental damage done by the mining and refinement processes, arguing the cost outweighs any benefit from green energy. In the eyes of many the issue of rare earths makes solar and wind power dead ends, effectively short-circuiting any green energy revolution. Such preconceptions are based on incomplete, inaccurate, and insufficient reporting on the real story behind rare earths.

The best place to start with on rare earths is simple: what are they? Rare earths are a set of elements which were first discovered in the late 1700s. At the time of their discovery these new elements were collectively dubbed “rare earths” because they exist as trace elements in more commonly found minerals and not in their own concentrated deposits. For decades rare earths were something of a curiosity with little understanding of what they could do. The rise of industrial chemistry in the late 1800s and early 1900s gave scientists the means to properly separate and refine the trace deposits and better understand their qualities. This gave rise to a string of discoveries for practical applications in everything from modern electronics to hybrid engines and glass. Without these virtually alchemic elements the modern digital revolution would still be in its infancy.

In spite of the name and their occurrence in nature rare earths are not actually that rare. While they do not exist in large, easy to commercially exploit deposits this does not mean they are not plentiful. Geological studies have consistently proven that rare earths, in spite of the name, are as common in the earth's crust as silver and in some cases as plentiful as lead. Up until the late 90s the United States was a major exporter of rare earths.

With rare earths being as plentiful as they are it begs the question: why does Chinese production dominate the rare earth market? The reasons have much less to do with supply and demand and a lot more to do with pure profit. Over the last ten years rare earth production in the United States and other parts of the world were scaled back and activity was increasingly concentrated in China. What China had to offer that other sources could not was simple: non-existent environmental and labor laws with carte blanche to do business as they saw fit. Following the dictates of corporate capitalism the international market for rare earths rapidly concentrated to the point that an estimated 95% of all rare earths are produced in China.

Of course this all assumes the only way to get rare earths is through expensive, environmentally hazardous, and toxic mining. Rare earths, like most metals, are fairly easy to recycle. Not only are they relatively easy to recycle, they're widely available. The widespread use of rare earths in modern electronics ranging from batteries to laptops and plasma screen televisions makes the one and a half to two million tons of electronic waste produced every year a gold mine of reusable material. Recovering rare earths through recycling is far less energy and resource intensive than conventional mining by neatly bypassing the extraction and refining phases of the process. The prospects for recycled rare earths are so great Honda is investing heavily in processes to recover these ubiquitous metals from old car batteries. In 2011 the French Rhodia Group announced the beginning of an extended investment into developing effective rare earth recycling methods. For what quantities might need to be mined in a conventional fashion new solutions are in development and being implemented which greatly reduce the environmental impact of the refining process.

Also left aside by the mainstream debate is the much broader array of green energy options which don't even use rare earths. Contrary to popular opinion solar panels depend on few, if any, rare earths for their construction. The claims that solar panels would be impacted by rare earth shortages was based on the use of certain rare earth compounds by two solar panel designs. This assertion ignores the designs in question are not the norm for solar panels because of their use of rare earths. Also completely unmentioned is the potential offered by hydroelectric power with options ranging from traditional hydropower dams to tidal power arrays which do not use rare earths in any critical components. In truth there is no empirical reason for rare earths to be seen as a serious obstacle to the implementation of green technology on a mass scale. The reason rare earths are an issue in the first place is one of the many direct and inevitable consequences of the corporate profit at all cost no matter the cost mentality.

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