Planet Earth

High-Tech Society Drives Demand for China's Rare Earth Metals

80beatsBy Eliza StricklandOct 15, 2010 10:20 PM

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Rare earth metals are a hot commodity in today's high-tech world. Until recently these elements were fairly obscure members of the periodic table; now, their usefulness in everything from hybrid cars to solar panels has boosted their profile.

The 17 rare earth metals, some with exotic names like lanthanum and europium, form unusually strong lightweight magnetic materials. Lanthanum is used in the batteries of hybrid cars, neodymium is used in magnets in the electric generators of wind turbines and europium is used in colored phosphors for energy-efficient lighting. [Reuters]

Their new necessity has also provided a boost to China, where the vast majority of these elements are currently mined. China's dominance has been brought into sharp focus over the past three weeks, when China blocked all shipments of rare earth metals to Japan in response to a diplomatic incident concerning a Chinese fishing boat

in territorially disputed waters.

Beijing has denied the embargo, yet the lack of supply may soon disrupt manufacturing in Japan, trade and industry minister Akihiro Ohata told reporters Tuesday. [Technology Review]

Despite the name, rare earth elements are actually fairly common in the Earth's crust. But they're often difficult to extract profitably without making an environmental mess, and in recent years production has largely shifted to China. The extraction of the metals can be plenty dirty in China too

, but environmental regulations aren't yet stringent there.

In response to the abrupt halt in the export of rare earth metals to Japan, trade officials from the United States and Japan are discussing whether to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, Technology Review reports that companies are scrambling to find ways to reduce their reliance on these elements: some car companies are developing motors that don't use rare earth elements at all, while the U.S. Energy Department is funding research on making powerful magnets out of more prosaic materials.

And there's one final option for avoiding China's monopoly: Mine more rare earths here at home.

In California, Molycorp Minerals is looking to reopen rare-earth mines that closed in 2002, amidst low pricing and environmental concerns. In recent weeks, bills have been floated in the U.S. House and Senate aimed at reviving the rare-earth supply chain in the U.S., including mining, refining, and manufacturing. A third bill, in the House, is narrower, focusing on offering loan guarantees to restart mining. [Technology Review]

Related Content: 80beats: Nobel Prize Winner Warns World: We’re Running Out of Helium

80beats: New Element Discovered! But Don’t Ask About Its Name

80beats: China’s Latest Environmental Ills: Oil Spills and Copper Mines

80beats: Isn’t It Ironic: Green Tech Relies on Dirty Mining in China

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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