Rare Earth Elements: the rise of technology and the demise of the environment?

What do these…
Lanthanum ,Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Promethium, Samarium, Europium, Gadolinium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium, Thulium, Ytterbium, Lutetium, Scandium, Yttrium

…have in common with these?
Electric and hybrid vehicles, laptop computers, cameras, fibre optics, telescopes, binoculars, night vision goggles, computer chips and other electrical components, catalytic converters in cars, high power magnets, glass and ceramic colouring, laser range finders, guidance systems, X-ray lasers, precision guided weapons, stealth technology, pilot display screens, colour television, energy efficient fluorescent lights, nuclear reactor control rods, rheumatoid arthritis treatment, radiation badges, dental lasers, protective coatings for aerospace surfaces, solar panels, cancer treatment, microwave ovens, CDs, LEDs, CAT scan machines, computer hard drives, wind turbines, air conditioners, smart phones, tablet computers.

Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are a group of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table that share many similar properties. Although fairly abundant, they are referred to as ‘rare’ because it is not common to find them in commercially viable concentrations. Since they share similar chemical properties they mostly occur together in geological deposits, which makes it difficult and expensive to separate them from each other.

Despite the discovery of the first Rare Earth Element in 1787, REE usage was limited for a long time to the manufacturing of incandescent gas lamps and flints for lighters. As science progressed new applications for REEs were discovered, to such an extent that they have become some of the most common ingredients in modern technology. Today, REEs are vital to two of the world’s fastest growing industries: clean energy and high technology.

The largest end user of REEs is the permanent magnet industry. This segment represents about 25% of total demand and is expected to grow to 30% by 2015. REE magnets are in high demand due to their strength, heat resistance and ability to maintain their magnetism over very long periods of time. Their higher performance and smaller size enables many miniature applications, such as personal electronic devices (smart phones, laptops, tablet computers).
Capacity utilisation is one of the biggest challenges in the wind energy sector. Replacing gear driven turbines with powerful direct-drive permanent magnet generators can increase efficiency by 25%. Some of the largest turbines require two tons of permanent magnets, which contain about 30% REE.
High performance REE magnets are also utilised in high tech military equipment such as submarine engines, missile guidance systems and armoured vehicle navigation systems. Currently China supplies about 60% of the global REE magnet market, with Japan in second place with 30%.

Another well established REE user is the petroleum industry where it is used in fluid catalytic cracking – the process whereby crude oil is refined into commercial products like petrol, diesel and jet fuel.

REEs also play a big role in the automotive ‘clean’ energy sector. They are used in the manufacturing of catalytic converters, hybrid car batteries and regenerative braking systems. It is estimated that electric and hybrid cars may contain up to 11 kg of REE.

Apart from turbine magnets and the automotive industry, REEs have further uses in green technology. They are used to produce phosphors used in low emission lighting, as well as in efficient thin-film semi-conductors for solar panels.

At present China controls about 97% of the global production of REEs, but that was not always the case. In the 1950’s South Africa was the market leader due to REEs produced as a by-product of the Thorium mine at Steenkampskraal in the Western Cape. The radioactive Thorium was mostly exported to the UK for use in its nuclear reactors. By the early sixties the mine was closed due to the UK’s switch to uranium, which could be used for both civil and military purposes. At that stage there were not enough commercial applications for REEs to profitably sustain the mine, and SA’s position was overtaken by the USA. For the next few decades the Mountain Pass mine in California became the world’s leading producer of REEs. In 2002 Mountain Pass shut down due to low REE prices and environmental concerns.

China has achieved almost total dominance of REE production and separation (the process of extracting the REE oxides from ore), by way of an aggressive pricing policy. This policy relied heavily on the Chinese government’s disregard for the environment and the low wages paid to workers in the industry. Rare earth mining regions in China have been devastated by REE mining and processing. Acidic waste water, harmful gases, contaminated groundwater and radioactive tailings all contributed to an environmental disaster.
One of the significant risks inherent in REE extraction and separation is the radioactive waste produced, since REEs are often found in the same ore as Thorium and Uranium. Studies done in the USA and China have shown that thorium radiation emitted during the refining process and by plant waste can cause cancer, leukaemia, birth defects and chronic lung diseases.
The Mountain Pass mine in the USA was closed down partly because of a series of unreported waste water spills containing radioactive materials, which landed up in a nearby lake.
In order to separate the REEs in the ore, from each other, large quantities of acid are used. This leads to the creation of toxic tailings ponds. (Tailings are the materials left over after separating the valuable parts from the uneconomic portion of an ore)
Mitsubishi’s Bukit Merha separation plant in Malaysia was closed in 1992 after it was blamed for the unusually high number of birth defects and leukaemia cases among the local population.

For many years Western technology companies were not really bothered by the environmental and human damage caused by REE mining and processing, as long as they had access to a constant supply of cheap REEs. When China started imposing strict export quotas in 2010, ostensibly to protect a critical resource and start looking after their environment, that scenario changed. Western companies started scouring the globe for potential REE mining sites. Several have since been identified and a few are almost ready to start production. Concerns about China’s primary control over a strategic resource have reached fever pitch, especially in the USA, where REEs are used extensively in the manufacture of high-tech military equipment.

Two sites have been identified in South Africa. The old Steenkampskraal thorium mine in the Western Cape has been targeted by Canada’s Great Western Minerals Group, in a joint venture with China’s Ganzhou Qiandong Rare Earth. A separation plant is planned in addition to REE mining. In the Northern Cape, the Zandkopsdrift site has been acquired by Luxembourg based mining group, Frontier Rare Earths, in partnership with Korean parastatal, Kores. It has the potential to become the biggest REE mine outside China, due to the huge deposits of REEs found in the area. Both ventures are subject to 26% Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) stakeholding. In the Steenkampskraal case it has been mentioned that the 7% government royalty on mining and 5% royalty on processed products were waived, in return for a 26% share of revenue from the mined product. Which would in effect mean that revenue is diverted from government tax coffers to a BEE group.

Consumer fatigue may be a factor when pronouncing on the above issues. Most of us already feel pummelled by media inflicted guilt about the Bangladeshi kid stitching a football for a pittance, or news of forced child labour in Congolese mines. We’d much rather just prance around with the latest gadget. However, activism may have a better chance at succeeding when a potentially harmful operation is still in its planning stages.

Questions should also be levied at big corporations that make increasingly massive profits at the expense of another country’s environment and take advantage of its weak labour laws. It is a fact that the public in a totalitarian state like China have very little say in structural policy that may affect them in the long term. Which makes excessive profit taking by Western companies even more noxious. REEs are here to stay, but maybe a bit more environmental and social responsibility should be required from the technology companies that rely on them. Many of the newly identified sites for REE mines are situated in developing countries with ineffectual environmental protection legislation and even less capacity or will power to police such legislation. It opens the door for unscrupulous foreign mining companies to take short cuts at the expense of the local population.

Further issue may be taken with so-called green activists agitating for greater investment in certain ‘clean’ technologies. As shown above, wind turbines, hybrid cars and solar panels also have a negative impact on the environment by way of their manufacture. Maybe a proper audit of manufacturing impact versus operational environmental friendliness should be considered before becoming a pundit for a particular ‘clean’ technology.

In South Africa’s case the BEE interests in the two planned mines, Steenkampskraal and Zandkopsdrift, should be carefully scrutinised for nepotism and corruption. How many current or ex politicians are involved in the BEE deals?
As a whole the economic and environmental sustainability of both projects should be thoroughly analysed and open to public debate.
More attention should also be paid to developing a local beneficiation strategy for the industry. As a mere mining operation, only 100 – 200 local people would be employed per site. The more stages of the production process – from mining to end product – take place in SA, the higher the revenue and employment benefits to the country. That would of course mean that better attention is paid to the consequences of a haphazard and ineffectual educational system. A 30% pass rate for mathematics at school does not augur well for the development of future engineers who could kick start and develop such an industry.

Globally there are a number of strategies to reduce reliance on REEs: increased efficiency in REE usage, substitution of REEs with other materials, and recycling. However, considering the massive rise in production of high tech consumer goods and ‘clean’ technology items, it seems unlikely that the demand for certain REEs will diminish in the foreseeable future. Will that mean a concomitant demise of the environment across the globe? Only time and our collective gadget obsessed conscience will tell.

2 thoughts on “Rare Earth Elements: the rise of technology and the demise of the environment?

  1. I agree with Nosy Rosy: thought provoking and and once again emphasizing our low educational standards, worldwide. Why do humans need an article like this for some of us to start thinking? Then again, because we are not willing to go without our little comforts, we choose to ignore the facts, even when put as bluntly as you just have. “Let’s pretend you never did the research and never wrote the article”. I think I’m going to build myself a mud house, live by candlelight and get a cow.

  2. Thank you for yet another disturbingly thought provoking article. I am definitely more aware of my participation (as I am typing this on my laptop and extended huge LED screen), my ‘Slavery footprint’ as well as the environmental impact of my ‘gadget obsession’. I love how you slam home, once more, the influence of our pathetically low educational standards.

    Will South Africans take action or remain large corporation’s and the Governments’ little Bitches?

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