In the West, the rare earth rush is on


Recent news about the scarcity of rare earth minerals caught my attention just as I was reluctantly learning how to use my new Droid Razr. I am about a decade late for the smart-phone revolution, as I am with most gadgetry. You are welcome to laugh at me for this. I think I have the hang of the tapping and sliding now, but I’m still not fully convinced that 24/7 access to the web is enriching life in any meaningful way beyond some extra convenience for my employer. This crotchety attitude was amplified by the reminder that while “smart” communication is paperless, it’s hardly green.

The crisp colors on my new phone’s screen, the lightning-fast circuitry, and the great speaker sound come to me courtesy of, among other ingredients, dysprosium and praseodymium, two of the many rare earth minerals that until recently have been almost exclusively mined and processed in Baotou, China. Due to backlash that resulted from international coverage of such environmental abuses in Baotou as heavy smog and open settling ponds containing radioactive thorium and uranium (by-products of rare-earth processing), Chinese rare-earth mining companies claim to be cleaning up their act, which is good. However, demand for rare-earth minerals (which are not really rare, just difficult to extract) remains high, and this brings us right here to the West.

A mine in the eastern California desert is again producing “rare earths,” and its owner, Molycorp, promises that it will use cleaner processing methods than its Chinese competitors. 

Molycorp mine in California. Image courtesy Flickr user Tom Brandt.

Other companies are hoping to begin digging for the minerals in Wyoming, Utah, and on the Idaho-Montana border soon. The rush is on, and not just due to cell-phones. “Rare earths” show up in an amazing variety of necessary and desirable products. The U.S. military needs them for aircraft electronics, radar, night vision goggles, and navigation systems, and they’re not too keen on relying on Chinese suppliers for these. In a completely different segment of the market, Buckyballs (you may remember the dust-up over those) and other popular “rare earth magnets” are made of neodymium, one of the more heavily used rare earths. Perhaps the more challenging dilemma for environmentalists, however, is the need for rare earths in such “green” products as wind turbines and hybrid cars.

I’ve written before in this space about the trade-offs we face as we work toward a more sustainable future, and here are yet more. I’m all for wind power, for example, but that also means the possibility of more open-pit rare-earth mines in neighboring states (or, barring that, heavier reliance on Chinese exports). Sigh. At least cleaner processing by the likes of Molycorp are in the conversation, as is rare-earth recycling, being introduced by Japanese companies like Panasonic, which recycles some neodymium. Hopefully these reforms will continue, and make their way into the next phone to which I grudgingly upgrade.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

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