Reimagining rare earth elements in a sacrifice zone-free future

One of the urgent challenges of transitioning to a climate-neutral energy economy will be achieving a sustainable supply of the rare earth elements. These 17 elements are used in relatively small quantities in consumer electronics and defense applications. But they will be needed in much larger amounts for wind turbines and electric vehicles.

The "rare earth" label is a peculiar artifact of 18th-century geology, when mineral forms of these elements were first discovered. Today we know accessible deposits of these elements can be found in many places around the world. Yet the mistaken idea of rarity often justifies destructive practices in obtaining these metals. 

Current production is concentrated in just a few places in the world, mostly in China. A combination of market pressures and government priorities have produced serious environmental damage and inflicted a terrible cost on the health of people who live nearby. This gives the Chinese government leverage in international affairs, while also harming vulnerable people.

We need to imagine a more just form of production. What would it look like to increase rare earth element production without sacrificing places and people?

The sacrifice zones of rare earth production

The rare earth elements may not be rare, geologically speaking, but they are hard to get in large quantities. The quirk of quantum chemistry that makes these elements so useful also makes them difficult to separate and purify. Today’s industrial separation processes produce heaps of nasty byproducts, including concentrated acids and radioactive waste. 

The overwhelming majority of the world’s rare earth elements today come from the Chinese region of Baotou because in the 1990s, the Chinese government decided to pursue a policy that led to the country’s dominance in world exports. This policy knowingly accepted terrible costs to the health of the people around the region’s mines and caused grievous damage to the environment. There are radiation concerns around wastes that contain thorium, a moderately radioactive metal named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Other toxic chemicals used in extracting the rare earth elements include oxalic and hydrochloric acids.

Scholars call this approach the creation of a "sacrifice zone." In the past, many governments (including the United States) have created sacrifice zones out of the places where politically powerless people live, in pursuit of these valued rare earth metals.

In 2010, China used rare earth supplies to pressure Japan in a territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands. The government blocked exports to Japan, which the country relied on to develop products such as wind turbines, hybrid cars and solar panels. Lit by a sense of crisis, rare earth prices soared and policymakers around the world began to take notice. Since then, new rare earth deposits have been discovered across the globe in the Pacific islands, Australia and the United States, among others, to meet the high global demand.

A major result of this apparent rare earth "crisis" was proposals to create new sacrifice zones. Mines and separation works were imagined in Greenland, the Amazon, even on the moon.

Geographer Julie Michelle Klinger has documented how these proposals misleadingly framed the places they would damage as "frontiers" ripe for development. The rhetoric of frontier erased the people who already lived there. And while the moon might not have a regular residence yet, an international treaty is in place that protects it as the patrimony of all humanity. Mining on the moon would break that agreement. Indeed, it often seems that the rare earth crisis becomes a justification for some people to take power over others. 

An alternative vision

A more just way forward begins with the principles of green chemistry. Can we redesign processes and products to make rare earth production less toxic and impactful upon the environment?

Research suggests some ways to do that.

Eric Schelter, a specialist in advanced rare earth separations chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, has developed techniques for using ligands (ions that bind to atoms to form a coordination complex) to separate neodymium and dysprosium at room temperature using common lab equipment, in contrast to the extremely energy-intensive process and high heat currently used.

An acid-free technique for dissolving and recovering rare earths from shredded hard drives has emerged at Ames Laboratory, developed by researchers Ikenna Nlebedim, Denis Prodius and Anja-Verena Mudring.

And at a consortium of universities across Europe, the European Union has funded a project to develop new ways to design electric cars from the outset so they are much easier to recycle.

Business also can be an important player in pioneering new methods of recovering rare earth elements. In one attention-getting move, Apple is experimenting with a robot named Daisy (PDF) to disassemble returned products to more efficiently recover the various metals, including rare earths. The company also could take steps to make its devices easier to repair and upgrade, without being replaced.

While science and business are part of the solution, innovation alone will not lead to a more just world. Even outstandingly efficient recycling practices will not produce enough rare earths for the large magnets necessary for tens of thousands of wind turbines and millions of electric vehicles.

Meeting that demand will require a commitment to support responsible production. We also need to increase rare earth elements production in developed countries with better protections for human health and stronger environmental regulatory enforcement.

Historically, governments have played a key role in encouraging and managing the production of a wide range of commodities, from oil and corn to more specialized substances such as synthetic rubber and generic drugs. Geological sources of rare earth element ores are available in the United States and in other countries with the capacity to enforce production processes that contain and treat the pollution. Encouragement to restart domestic production could be coupled with subsidies for ongoing environmental protections, such as wastewater treatment, maintenance of tailing ponds and extensive monitoring networks to warn of pollution that does escape.

A way forward

The rare earth elements are materials that matter for our future. They can’t be produced pollution-free, but we can make them in ways that don’t exploit some people for the benefit of others. While more research is valuable, actions by businesses and government can work using just what we know now. Policy proposals such as the Green New Deal need to support the material bases necessary for the greener future they envision.