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‘Rare earth metals used in clean energy technologies. But how safe are they?’

  • Category
    Environment
  • Published
    25th Jan, 2021

Naturally abundant wind, geothermal, solar, tidal and electric energy are being hastened as the future of the planet's energy needs. And rare earth elements are used in a bevy of technologies to generate this cleaner, renewable energy. 

Context

Naturally abundant wind, geothermal, solar, tidal and electric energy are being hastened as the future of the planet's energy needs. And rare earth elements are used in a bevy of technologies to generate this cleaner, renewable energy. 

About

What are rare earth elements?

  • Rare earth elements include wind turbine magnets, solar cells, smart phone components, cells used in electric vehicles, among others.
  • The 17 Rare Earths are cerium (Ce), dysprosium (Dy), erbium (Er), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), holmium (Ho), lanthanum (La), lutetium (Lu), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), scandium (Sc), terbium (Tb), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), and yttrium (Y).

Are they really ‘rare’?

  • Despite their classification, most of these elements are not really “rare”, they are found abundantly in the Earth's crust.
  • They are widely dispersed and found in low concentrations that are not economically exploitable.
  • One of the Rare Earths, promethium, is radioactive.

Primary producers

  • Until 1948, India and Brazil were the world’s primary producers of rare earth metals.
  • The countries with the most rare earth metals currently are China (the largest reserves in the world), the United States, Brazil, India, Vietnam, Australia, Russia, Myanmar, Indonesia.

Usage

  • Electronic technologies: These elements are important in technologies of consumer electronics, computers and networks, communications, clean energy, advanced transportation, healthcare, environmental mitigation, and national defence, among others.
    • Scandium is used in televisions and fluorescent lamps, and yttrium is used in drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.
  • Defence equipments: While Rare Earth elements are used in building consumer electronics, in healthcare and transportation, they are especially important for governments because of their use in manufacturing defence equipment. 
  • Space: Rare Earth elements are used in space shuttle components, jet engine turbines, and drones.
    • Cerium, the most abundant Rare Earth element, is essential to NASA’s Space Shuttle Programme.

The concern

  • Equal exploitation as mining: Extraction and mining of rare earth metals involves similar land-use exploitation, environmental damage and ecological burden as any other mining operation. They are mined using extremely energy-intensive processes, spewing carbon emissions into the atmosphere and toxins into the ground.
  • Damaging ecosystem: Many of these metals, which include mercury, barium, lead, chromium and cadmium, are extremely damaging to the health of several ecosystems, including humans. 
  • Like the cartelisation of oil and gas and the chances of oil embargoes, there are high possibilities of this happening to global rare earth metal reserves and supply chains. They are driven by changes in development models, innovation and discovery of resource availability.

What about recycling?

  • Recycling of these rare earth metals for continuous usage for various technologies is a good option that can be considered.
  • It is a lengthy process which involves demagnetisation (by heating), crushing and roasting, followed by a leaching process and a separation method before a final roasting to produce a mixed rare earth oxide.
  • Hundreds of thousands of tons of rare earth compounds are being produced and manufactured into products each year.
  • Recycling rare earth materials is challenging because once embedded in devices, they're difficult to take out.
  • Instead of discarding phones or IT equipment after a couple of years, enterprises should aim to get the most out of the technology they have invested in through repairing or refurbishing.
  • Having suitable recycling methods is a valuable contribution towards keeping the costs of the materials low and maximising the use of the rare earth elements.
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