Rare Considerations

We like to think we can “innovate our way” out of the environmental crises (for there are indeed more than one, not just climate change). But this is simply more of trying to solve a problem with the same thinking that got you into it. Here’s another example why inventing new technology (mostly so we can keep using other, older technology) is just going to dig a deeper hole.

I found it in a recent article titled “China’s Rare Earth Monolopy,” by Olivier Zajec, a French strategic-intelligence consultant. The key point is that everything we call “high tech” is utterly dependent on 17 rare-earth metals, so called because it’s necessary to sift through a lot of dirt to get enough of them to use – stuff you’ve never heard of, like neodymium and europium.

Zajec’s emphasis is on the fact that China has an effective monopoly on the stuff. That’s largely due to the fact that it’s willing to suffer the environmental consequences of mining and processing rare earth, and willing to sacrifice the health of its workers: The process uses harmful chemical and leaves behind radioactive waste. Other countries, including the U.S., have largely abandoned the field because China simply supplies rare earth too cheaply to compete.

But from an environmental perspective, two paragraphs from Zajec’s article are even more interesting:

“The rare earth metals are a group of 17 elements whose unique properties have made them increasingly sought after by new hi-tech industries. They are used in lasers, mobile phones and LCD screens. They make possible the latest generation of touch screen devices such as iPhones and iPads. New green industries also depend on them: power cells for hybrid cars, solar panels, low-energy light bulbs and wind turbines all rely on rare earth metals such as neodymium, lutecium, dysprosium, europium and terbium. They are also used as catalysts in oil refining. …

“Worldwide demand for rare earth elements is growing by more than 10% a year, and has risen from 40,000 to 120,000 tons over a decade. US, Japanese and European industry is already unable to do without them. As Cindy Hurst recently put it in a report for the US Department of Defense (DoD): “Without rare earth elements, much of the world’s modern technology would be vastly different and many applications would not be possible. For one thing, we would not have the advantage of smaller sized technology, such as the cell phone and laptop computer.” As a general rule, the more innovative the industry and the more hardwearing, light, small-sized and eco-friendly the product, the greater its reliance on rare earth elements. Take the car industry for example: Simply to produce the batteries for its hybrid Prius car, Toyota needs 10,000 tons of rare earth metals a year. And the advent of green industries could see annual demand rise to 200,000 tons; there are several hundred kilos of rare earth metals in a single large wind turbine.”

So the very inventions that most people are relying on to make us “greener” – faster computers! Hybrid cars! Solar cells! – are in their manufacture rather toxic to the planet too. And as the case of the wind turbines emphasizes, we’re not talking about small quantities of this stuff.

This might not mean, for instance, that shifting to renewable energy sources still isn’t better than continuing to use fossil fuels. But it does mean such switches are no free ride for the environment. And it means that making that switch would, in the short term at least, relying heavily on China – a country whose environmental record is such that many people in large cities wear surgical masks to breathe.

Zajec’s full article was distributed by the Agence Global news service.

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