Book Club: The Risks and Rewards of Rare Earth Elements

Our book club reads Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth by Keith Veronese. 

By Sarah Reisert | October 30, 2019
Illustration highlighting the rare earth elements in the periodic table

Rare earth elements are key ingredients in cell phones, wind turbines, light bulbs, and many other modern technologies. 

Claudia Li

Greetings from the Science History Institute Book Club! Here at the Institute we’ve spent the last year investigating the rare earth elements. It seemed only natural, then, for the book club to read up on them. We chose Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth by Keith Veronese. 

What are the rare earth elements anyway? A collection of 17 elements, 15 lanthanides (usually depicted as the two rows at the bottom of the table) plus scandium and yttrium. Scandium and yttrium get included in the rare earths family because they tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides and exhibit similar chemical properties. Despite their name these elements are not really rare, just difficult to mine. They are seldom found in large quantities in a single location, which makes their mining expensive and time consuming. Plus they are distributed unevenly in the earth’s crust, with some of the largest deposits sitting in China. In fact China currently produces about 81% of the world’s supply of rare earths.

China’s monopoly has begun to make some industry leaders in the West nervous because these elements are pretty essential to modern life. Their unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties make possible our smartphones, electric cars, camera lenses, X-ray scanners, wind turbines, and computer hard drives. What would American industry do if China cut off its supply?

The mining of rare earth elements is a dirty business. Veronese writes that tons of ammonium sulfate, ammonium chloride, and other chemicals are injected into the earth to separate rare earth metals from the surrounding soil. Furthermore, rare earths are frequently found in mineral deposits with the slightly radioactive element thorium, exposure to which has been linked to an increased risk for developing lung, pancreatic, and other forms of cancer. Wastewater from mining contains acids, heavy metals, and radioactive by-products, all of which can leach into the ground and contaminate crops and groundwater. Because of these dangers people living in impoverished or isolated communities in countries with few environmental and labor regulations are frequently left to literally do the dirty work for the rest of the world.

Veronese offers a far-out fix for some of these problems: space mining. There’s money to be made in them thar hills. According to Asterank, a service that keeps track of some 6,000 asteroids in NASA’s database, there are more than 500 asteroids that could have a combined mineral value of more than $100 trillion. The estimated profit on just the top 10 asteroids judged “most cost-effective” (the easiest to reach and to mine) is around $1.5 trillion. Even the moon likely has some rare earth elements in it. But who gets to mine the moon? In 1979 the United Nations put forth the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, which stated that all nations share the claim to bodies outside the boundaries of our planet. Only 19 countries have supported the agreement. Notably absent from the ranks are China, Russia, and the United States, the three countries with the most advanced spacefaring equipment.

Here are a few of our discussion questions for those of you who read Rare:

  1. Are you willing to try recycling electronics at home?
  2. Deep sea mining: yea or nay?
  3. What are the positives and negatives of opening rare earth mines in the United States?  Do you think it’s worth it?

Looking for more reading recommendations to get you through the chilly months? We suggest Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear by Margee Kerr. Join our Facebook group to discuss this book and share your own favorites!