Rare Earth Elements – Three Dirty Words?

Wednesday May 27, 2015 13:07

Deep in the inner regions of Mongolia in China lies Baotou, the area’s largest industrial city. It accounts for two thirds of China’s rare earth element (REE) output. Without it, the world of consumer electronics as we know it would not exist. The region is symbol of the immense relevance of technology metals to our modern lives and their inherent downsides alike.

Rare earth elements are key components in cars, mobile phones, home electronics and many other areas.

A vast man-made lake described as “dystopian and horrifying” (Tim Maughan, BBC) containing “black, barely liquid toxic sludge” stretches out to the horizon, result of waste chemicals used in the mining process. Cerium oxide and neodymium are the region’s main features, metals that we find in all mobile phones, cars and flat screen televisions. The BBC, and other journalists traveling the area returned with disturbing stories and images from a city that grew from just 97,000 inhabitants to 2.5 million since the 1950s. Rare Earth Elements – dirty products that ought to be shunned?

It’s not that easy, unfortunately. While the sad reports are probably true it is also obvious that our gadget-hungry life styles are unlikely to change because of this knowledge. At the most, consumers are likely to favor brands that use less or none of the metals, or recycle them. Tesla, for instance, have publicly declared that the electric motors used in their “Model S” do not contain any REEs. However, many other components found in the car (power window motors, displays, glass etc.) do. At any rate, it’s a start that consumers appreciate.

A long way still lies ahead of us in terms of recycling. A very large amount of mobile phones, flat screens of all kinds as well as electric motors contained in other products still end up in landfill rather than in recycling plants. The recycling industry is slowly emerging but low material prices stand in the way of industrializing the relatively complex recycling technologies. At the same time there is hope that recent publicity will cause environmental awareness to grow. China will have to face its mounting environmental and public health issues eventually. Sustainable long term economic growth will depend on resolving the issue at the source.

Consumption of REE’s is unlikely to be impacted despite the shocking reports. Markets will continue to grow, and China will maintain an important role as producer of electronic consumer products. Deteriorating conditions in Mongolia may, however, create pressure and prompt a turning point towards more responsible and sustainable ways of producing these indispensable metals.

By Bodo Albrecht,