REEs are used in everything from solar panels to electric cars. Due to environmental and foreign policy concerns, they also have an uncertain future.
Rare earth elements are used in everything from renewables to spacecraft and play a critical role in today’s world. Their importance in our society will only increase in the coming years as renewables gain prevalence. However, vulnerable supply chains could threaten the viability of that future.
The periodic table contains 17 REEs, which means they aren’t rare—they’re considered rare because they aren’t typically found in massive ore deposits, making mining more tedious and expensive.
Typically used in small amounts, REEs hold distinct magnetic, phosphorescent, and heat-resistant properties. When combined with other elements, they can often create something with unique properties.
Magnets produced using four types of rare earth elements appear in wind turbines and electric cars as well as a range of other products.
Here are just a few examples of how REEs are used in renewable technology:
- A single electric car requires 15 pounds of lithium.
- Thin solar panels require tellurium.
- Powerful magnets created by combining neodymium with iron and boron are used in many wind turbines.
Mining rare earth elements can cause serious environmental problems, disrupting ecosystems, contaminating waterways, and leaving behind hazardous tailings.
For every ton of rare earth elements processed, two thousand tons of toxic waste are produced. Thus, producing renewable energy is not a purely “green” solution.
Mining is also expensive—it costs up to $500 million to build an REE mine.
Rare earth elements are already playing a critical role in international relations. China holds 40% of the world’s rare earth minerals and currently provides 80% of the U.S. supply, says Foreign Policy. “With the U.S.-China trade war intensifying, Chinese state media last week began floating the idea of banning exports of rare-earth elements to the United States,” the authors note. An REE embargo, or even substantial restrictions, could affect our nation’s ability to keep up with the demand for renewables.
Why the fears of these restrictions? China has been buckling down on environmental concerns amid public outcry about pollution.
Many rare earth elements primarily come from China because of its lax environmental policies, but that may be changing. The nation already sets a quota for rare earth production for this reason. Further, China is continuing to consume more REEs every year, so it may become a net importer of them by 2025.
Ramping up geophysical imaging projects across the U.S. could play a key role in ensuring a steady supply of REEs, according to experts at a recent conference at Stanford. The U.S. likely holds far more REEs than we realize, and the reality is that we’ve used far more sophisticated technology to map the Middle East than our own nation.
A recent study shows that the clay layers within certain super caldera volcanoes in the U.S. (and other countries) could hold substantial amounts of lithium, Stanford’s article on the conference notes.
Other researchers are investigating the possibility of producing REEs synthetically. As Popular Mechanics reports, researchers have successfully used a synthetic, bacteria-based process to produce six different REEs.
In short, we should stop putting all our eggs in one basket—China—and consider what might be right under our feet. Further, the hazards caused by mining REEs call for an overall reduction in energy consumption. That may be the only way to truly reduce our impact on the climate and environment we depend on.