“Thank goodness for lanthanide” isn’t what I’m saying, but after reading this particular report on rare earth elements at the company, maybe I should.
These stealth metals, which include the chemical elements known as lanthanides plus two other elements on the periodic table, are needed to make the magnets needed in electric cars and wind turbines, two key technologies to combat climate change. Elements are ubiquitous in our homes, from smartphones and television screens to earbuds and computer hard drives.
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But that’s right.
“I’m really fascinated by how the rare earths connect us to each other,” author Nikk Ogasa, who has written about the chemistry of these elements, told me. “It blows my mind that these dull-colored metals will enable our global internet and satellite communications systems and how much the internet could one day rise.”
But to sustain modern life, we need rare earth elements. They are by no means all rare, but only around a dozen sites around the world are mined. Earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling traveled to California’s Mojave Desert last summer to visit Mountain Pass, the only rare earth in the United States. He spent hours exploring the giant lake with officials from MP Materials, a tunnel company that hopes to make it part of the first U.S.-based rare earth supply chain from ore to magnets. Ore from the mine is now sent to China to be procured. “I felt like I needed to see it to describe it,” Gramling told me. “It gave me a real sense of what you’re trying to do there.”
Threats of rare earths have harmed environmental contamination and human health, most notably in China. More demand means more mines and the need for further cuts to minimize negative impacts. MP Materials is trying to reduce these impacts, Gramlingius reports. Another option to reduce harm would be to extract rare earths from the mountains that surround us. Even that is not easy.
“When you think we recycle so many other metals, why aren’t we recycling these?” says Erin Wayman, managing editor of the magazine, who has written about efforts to develop new ways to recycle rare earths.
Tiny rare earths are mixed with other materials on the smartphone screen or magnet. So the process of extracting rare earths from consumer products is not that simple or cost effective. “It’s not like you take aluminum and make more aluminum,” Wayman explains. Making the recycling process of these products more economical is an infrastructure challenge, not just a technological problem. “We don’t have a system where you can put them in the blue bin to curb it,” Wayman says. It will take both new knowledge and new methods of recycling to make that happen. But the people in the rare earth of the recycling industry are the best at what’s to come, and especially as we anticipate a future of sleeker screens and electric cars.
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