Environmental Damnation 24: Rare Earth Metals

As defined by Wikipedia, a rare earth metal (REM), or rare earth element (REE), is one of a set of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the fifteen lanthanides, as well as scandium and yttrium (because they tend to occur in the same ore deposits and exhibit chemical properties). While many of these elements are relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust, they are rare in that, due to their geochemical properties, they are typically dispersed and not concentrated in ore deposits that are (easily) economically exploitable.

They are a damnation because:

  • almost every piece of modern technology depends on at least one of these elements
  • many of these elements are in short supply and supply, based on current mining capacity, is expected to be insufficient as early as 2020 for some of these elements
  • many of them cost more than precious metals
  • on average, 95% (or more) of rare earth metals are now being mined and provided by a single country: China
  • … and China is considering export restrictions that could significantly cripple global production of modern technology if implemented

To illustrate just how important these metals are, consider the common uses:

Metal Selected Uses
Scandium aerospace, metal-halide and mercury vapor lamps, and radioactive tracing agents
Yttrium lasers, superconductors, microwave filters, and spark plugs
Lanthanum flint, hydrogen storage, battery electrodes, camera lenses
Cerium oxidizing agent, polishing powder, catalytic uses
Praseodymium magnets, lasers, carbon arc lighting, didymium glass
Neodymium magnets, lasers, didymium glass, ceramic capacitors
Promethium nuclear batteries and luminous paint
Samarium magnets, lasers, neutron capture, masers
Europium phosphors, lasers, mercury-vapor and fluorescent lamps
Gadolinium magnets, lasers, X-ray tubes, computer memory, neutron capture, MRI contrast agent, magnetostrictive alloys
Terbium phosphors, lasers, fluorescent lamps, magnetostrictive alloys
Dysprosium magnets, lasers, magnetostrictive alloys
Holmium lasers, optical spectrophotometers, magnets
Erbium lasers, vanadium steel, fiber-optics
Thulium X-ray machines, metal-halide lamps, lasers
Ytterbium lasers, decoy flares, stainless steel, nuclear medicine
Lutetium positron emission tomography, lutetium tatalate hosts

And every computing device requires magnetics, memory, and optimal transmission (and this includes your laptops, phones, cameras, cars, etc.). These days almost everything has a microchip with a persistent (flash) memory. So when you consider the five-pronged reality described above, rare earth metals are quickly becoming a thorny Procurement Damnation.