The Case of Rare Earth Elements: Resources & Readings
Why Are Rare Earth Elements Important for Our Present and Our Future?
Adam Schwartz (Director, Ames Laboratory):
Now that’s a great question. Rare earths are truly an enabler of much of the modern society, modern technology that we have today. For example, 30 years ago cell phones had maybe 30 elements. Twenty years ago cell phones had maybe 30 elements in it. Today upwards of 70 elements are used within a modern mobile phone. The reason is rare earths have remarkable electronic properties. As a result of sitting so far down on the periodic table, they have another shell of electrons, those 4F electrons, and those 4F electrons enable amazing electrical properties, optical properties, and in particular magnetic properties.
Julie Klinger (Associate Director, Land Use and Livelihoods Initiative, Global Development Policy Center):
Everything that you can think of that makes our society function requires rare earth elements—just about. Everything from your smartphone to your laptop to, you know, various technological components to produce any kind of energy that we use. Whether we’re talking fossil fuels or nuclear or wind or solar, we require rare earth elements. And we also rely on rare earth elements for some of our most sophisticated medical technologies. So the magnets in MRI machines, for example, or the components for various bone replacements or tooth implants, or rare earths are even an ingredient in certain chemotherapy drugs. If you look around, you’ll find rare earths in just about anything. So the thing about rare earths is that no matter what kind of society we are interested in developing, whether it’s the greenest and greatest or something otherwise, we need them. And so that means it’s really important how and where we mine these things.
Eric Schelter (Director, Center for the Sustainable Separations of Metals):
We’re all aware of fair-trade coffee, which is involved with making sure that the farmers who produced the coffee have a living wage and are producing the coffee in a sustainable way. And we’ve probably also heard of things like blood diamonds where different materials like diamonds can help to fuel and sustain conflict in different parts of the world. And so essential critical metals are also a part of this same kind of set of supply-chain issues. And so if people become informed, then they can sort of challenge technology companies and say, we’re not going to continue to support supply chains that contribute to conflict and that contribute massive amounts of pollution. And therefore we would like to demand or we would like to have technology that is certified to be from sustainable sources. And so that could be involving recycling or just recycling of primary materials, but also recycling components of the devices themselves. So I think it’s up to consumers to insist that this is what we want, and then technology companies will have to respond. And one of the ways that they’ll respond is through the development of new processes that can produce these materials in a sustainable and even ethical way.
Credits: The Rare Earth Elements Project is made possible by a generous grant from Roy Eddleman, founder of Spectrum LifeSciences.
Illustrations and animations: Claud Li
Music: “Algo Rythm Natural” by Podington Bear
(c) 2020 Science History Institute
Assigned Readings & Other Sources
- Abrahams, David S. The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015. (Read pp. 38–46 on the Araxá Mine and CBMM.) (Producers)
- American Chemical Society, Green Chemistry Institute. “The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry.” acs.org. (Stewards)
- Atkin, Emily. “Trump Is the Wrong Target for Climate Activists.” New Republic, December 15, 2017. (Consumers)
- Bailey, Gwendolyn, Nabeel Mancheri, and Karel Van Acker. “Sustainability of Permanent Rare Earth Magnet Motors in (H)EV Industry.” Journal of Sustainable Metallurgy, March 2017. (Read the introduction and conclusion only.) (Stewards)
- Bailey, Gwendolyn, and Karel Van Acker. “Why the Electric-Vehicle Industry Must Work with the Producers of Rare Earths to Ensure a Sustainable Supply of These Critical Raw Materials for Europe.” Policy brief, EU MSCA-ETN DEMETER, September 2018. (Manufacturers)
- Bodetti, Austin. “Malaysia’s Rare Earth Debate.” Diplomat, January 10, 2019. (Activists)
- Bontron, Cécile. “Rare-Earth Mining in China Comes at a Heavy Cost for Local Villages.” Guardian, August 7, 2012. (Activists)
- Branford, Sue, and Maurício Torres. “Brazil to Open Indigenous Reserves to Mining without Indigenous Consent.” Mongabay, March 14, 2019. (Activists)
- Cardenes, Iliana. “Rare Earth Metals: Challenge for a Low Carbon Future.” Blog, Oxford Policy Management, December 2018. (Activists)
- Center for Diagnostic Imaging. “What It’s Like to Get a High-Field Open MRI.” February 3, 2015. (Video, 2:16 min.) (Manufacturers)
- Center for Strategic and International Studies. “China and the Global Rare Earth Trade: A Conversation with Julie Klinger.” ChinaPower, Bonnie S. Glaser, host, August 28, 2019. (Podcast, 25:19 min.) (Producers)
- Chemistry and Engineering News Online. “Rare Earth Elements—Eric Schelter.” July 2, 2011. (Video, 1:30 min.) (Stewards)
- Climate Alliance Austria and Federation of the Rio Negro Indigenous Organizations (FOIRN). “Gold Rush in Amazonia—Indigenous Success in Rio Negro,” pp. 20–21. In Championing Climate Justice: The Future We Want, September 2017. (Activists)
- CNBC. “Co-Chair of America’s Only Rare Earth Mine Discusses China’s Threat.” Interview with James Litinsky, owner of the Mountain Pass Mine, May 30, 2019. (Video, 6 min.) (Producers)
- Conniff, Richard. “Greenwashed Timber: How Sustainable Forest Certification Has Failed.” Yale Environment 360, February 20, 2018. (Activists, Stewards)
- Critical Materials Institute, Ames Laboratory. “About the Critical Materials Institute.” ameslab.gov. (Stewards)
- Crumbie, Alex. “Mobile Phones: A Guide to the Ethical and Environmental Record of 15 Mobile Phone Brands.” Ethical Consumer, October 23, 2019. (Consumers)
- Davidson, Ros. “Wind Industry Prepares for ‘Bottlenecks and Price Hikes’ in Rare Earth Metals.” Foresight Climate and Energy, republished at Medium.com, August 23, 2019. (Manufacturers)
- de Freitas Paes, Caio. “Niobium’s Silent Impact in Brazil.” Diálogo Chino, April 5, 2019. (Producers
- Dembicki, Geoff. “China’s Fast Path to Green Tech.” Tyee, November 27, 2012. (Activists)
- Desai, Pratima. “Tesla’s Electric Motor Shift to Spur Demand for Rare Earth Neodymium.” Reuters, March 12, 2018. (Consumers)
- Dodd, Jan. “Rethinking the Use of Rare-Earth Elements.” Wind Power Monthly, November 30, 2018. (Manufacturers)
- Dominish, Elsa, and Nick Florin. “Electric Cars Can Clean Up the Mining Industry—Here’s How.” Conversation, April 16, 2019. (Activists)
- Edison Group. “Electric Vehicles and Rare Earths.” Edison Investment Limited, January 29, 2019. (Manufacturers)
- Environmental Defense Fund. “Getting Toxics out of Household Products.” edf.org. (Stewards)
- Fairphone Company. “About Us.” fairphone.com. (Consumers)
- Fortune. “Supply and Demand: A Race for Rare Earths.” Interview with Amanda Lacaze, CEO of Lynas, November 2019. (Video, 13:59 min.) (Producers)
- Garcia, Mitch André. “Patent Picks: Catalytic Converters.” Chemical and Engineering News, June 29, 2015. (Manufacturers)
- Gerdeman, Dina. “What Do Chief Sustainability Officers Do?” Forbes, October 4, 2014. (Manufacturers)
- Giese, E. C. “Rare Earth Elements: Therapeutic and Diagnostic Applications in Modern Medicine.” Clinical and Medical Reports 2:1 (December 14, 2018), 1–2. (Manufacturers)
- Grasso, Valerie Bailey. “Rare Earth Elements in National Defense: Background, Oversight Issues, and Options for Congress.” Congressional Research Service White Paper, December 23, 2013. (Read pp. 10–15, “Background on Rare Earth Elements” through “Supply Chain Issues.”) (Consumers, Manufacturers)
- Greenpeace International. “Greenpeace International to Not Renew FSC Membership.” Press release, March 26, 2018. (Activists)
- Grier, Peter. “Rare-Earth Uncertainty.” Air Force Magazine, December 21, 2017. (Consumers, Manufacturers)
- Griffin, Andrew. “Apple Environment Head Lisa Jackson on Its Greener New iPhone—and the Work It Still Has to Do.” Independent, October 10, 2019. (Manufacturers)
- Heffernan, Tim. “Why Rare Earth Mining in the West Is a Bust.” High Country News, June 16, 2015. (Activists, Producers)
- Ives, Mike. “Boom in Mining Rare Earths Poses Mounting Toxic Risks.” Yale Environment 360, January 28, 2013. (Activists, Producers)
- Kim, Meeri. “Exposing a Trail of Devastation.” Global Citizen Magazine, Sarah Lawrence College, Fall 2018. (Stewards)
- King, Alex. “The ‘Rare Earth Crisis’ and Science in the Public Eye.” Oral history interview excerpt, Paul Burnett, interviewer. Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, June 6, 2016. (Video, 2:30 min.) (Stewards)
- Klinger, Julie. “Latin America’s New Mining Frontiers.” Diálogo Chino, February 8, 2018. (Activists)
- Klinger, Julie. “Rare Earths: Lessons for Latin America.” Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies, Fall 2013. (Stewards)
- Klinger, Julie Michelle. Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017. (Activists: Read the story of Mr. Santos on pp. 176–177 and the paragraph on the group FOIRN on pp. 178–179; Producers: Read pp. 159–162, “Greener Rare Earths: Uncelebrated Breakthroughs in Brazil.)
- Klinger, Julie Michelle, and Roger Turner. “R&D, Not Greenland, Can Solve Our Rare Earth Problem.” Hill, September 18, 2019. (Stewards)
- Lasley, Shane. “Ucore Builds REE Separation Plant Team.” Mining News North, November 1, 2019. (Producers)
- Law, Yao-Hua. “Radioactive Waste Standoff Could Slash High Tech’s Supply of Rare Earth Elements.” Science, April 1, 2019. (Activists, Producers)
- Levy, Dawn. “From Trash to Treasure: Electronic Waste Is Mined for Rare Earth Elements.” STEM Magazine, January 2020, pp. 12–17. (Stewards)
- Liu, Hongqiao. “Apple and Rare Earth Recycling.” China Water Risk, September 18, 2017. (Manufacturers)
- Lynas Corporation. “Rare Earths in Catalytic Converters Improve Their Effectiveness.” lynascorp.com. (Manufacturers)
- Ma, Alexandra. “From iPhones to Fighter Jets: Here’s a List of American Products That Could Be Affected If China Banned Rare-Earth Metal Exports to the US as a Trade-War Weapon.” Business Insider, May 21, 2019. (Manufacturers)
- Manjoo, Farhad. “A Wild Idea: Making Our Smartphones Last Longer.” New York Times, March 13, 2014. (Consumers)
- Meyer, Michal. Industrial Vitamins, Distillations, June 2, 2016. (Stewards)
- Mining.com. “Ucore CEO Ken Collison Discusses the Bokan Rare Earth Project in Alaska.” Interview, February 18, 2013. (Video, 5:44 min.) (Producers)
- Mo, Karen, and Huma Khan. “The Impact of Forest Stewardship Council Certification.” Research review, World Wildlife Fund, Global Forest and Trade Network, October 20, 2014. (Stewards)
- Nissan Motors. “Fewer Rare Earths Build a Greener LEAF.” June 8, 2016. (Video, 1:56 min.) (Manufacturers)
- PBS. “Rare Earth Elements.” In NOVA: Hunting the Elements. Video, April 4, 2012. (The relevant section is from 1:25:25 to 1:32:30, unless you want to learn how rare earths might be used as a shark repellent, in which case watch until 1:39:35.) (Consumers)
- Purdy, Kevin. “The Fairphone 3 Is Here, and It’s Not the Only Sustainable Phone on the Way.” iFixit, August 27, 2019. (Consumers)
- Retail Compliance Center of the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “The Value of Sustainability in Retail Merchandising.” rila.org. (Consumers)
- Ryder, Dianne. “DLA Strategic Materials Partners with Research and Development.” Press release, Defense Logistics Agency, October 26, 2018. (Consumers)
- Sanders, Samantha, dir. “A History of the Environmental Movement.” Commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund. Green River Films and Kartemquin Films, prod., 2017. (Video, 4:30 min.) (Stewards)
- SIM2 KU Leuven. “Designing and Recycling Electric Motors.” July 17, 2017. (Video, 2:42 min.) (Stewards)
- SIM2 KU Leuven. “First Recycled Electric Motor.” January 22, 2019. (Video, 2:55 min.) (Stewards)
- Skoll Foundation. “Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship 2015.” April 16, 2015. (Video, 6 min.) (Activists)
- Spicer, Andrew, and David Graham Hyatt. “Walmart Tried to Make Sustainability Affordable: Here’s What Happened.” Conversation, August 13, 2018. (Consumers)
- Standaert, Michael. “China Wrestles with the Toxic Aftermath of Rare Earth Mining.” Yale Environment 360, July 2, 2019. (Producers)
- Stewart, Phil, and Andrea Shalal. “Pentagon Seeks Funds to Reduce U.S. Reliance on China’s Rare Earth Metals.” Reuters, May 29, 2019. (Consumers, Manufacturers)
- Stone, Maddie. “Behind the Hype of Apple’s Plan to End Mining.” Earther: Gizmodo, March 6, 2019. (Consumers, Manufacturers)
- Su, Alice. “The Hidden Costs of China’s Rare Earth Trade.” Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2019. (Activists)
- Supply Chain Solutions Center, Environmental Defense Fund. “Five Pillars of Leadership: Best Practices for Safer Products.” edf.org. (Stewards)
- Tunnicliffe, Andrew. “Will the New Rare Earth Industry Association Reshape the Industry?” Mining Technology, October 24, 2019. (Stewards)
- Turner, Roger. “The Green New Deal Is Missing Some Vital Elements—and Will Fail without Them.” Quartz, March 5, 2019. (Activists)
- Turner, Roger. “Reimagining Rare Earth Elements in a Sacrifice Zone–Free Future.” GreenBiz, February 6, 2019. (Activists)
- University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences. “Eric Schelter—Scarcity and Sustainability: The Future of Rare, Precious, and Critical Metals.” September 28, 2018. (Video, 1:18 min.) (Stewards)
- Webb, Heather. “The Global Supply Chain of a Mobile Phone.” Ethical Consumer, October 15, 2018. (Consumers)
- Whelan, Tensie, and Randi Kronthal-Sacco. “Actually, Consumers Do Buy Sustainable Products.” Harvard Business Review, June 19, 2019. (Consumers)
- Wired. “The Tesla Model 3: The Culmination of Elon Musk’s Master Plan.” July 27, 2017. (Video, 6:57 min.) (Consumers)
- World Wildlife Fund. “How We Work.” wwf.panda.org. (Stewards)
- Bomgardner, Melody M. “New Toyota Magnet Cuts Rare-Earth Use: Automaker Targets Neodymium in New Formula for Magnets Used in Electric Motors.” Chemical and Engineering News, February 26, 2018.
- Bradsher, Keith. “China’s Illegal Rare Earth Mines Pollute Villages: Main Victims of Mines Run by Gangsters Are Peasants.” New York Times, December 29, 2010.
- Brockmeier, Erica K. “Magnets Sustainably Separate Mixtures of Rare Earth Metals.” Penn Today, October 23, 2018.
- Burrington, Ingrid. “Neodymium: Magnets—How Do They Work?” Popula, July 30, 2018.
- Center for Strategic and International Studies. “China and the Global Rare Earth Trade: A Conversation with Julie Klinger.” China Power, Bonnie S. Glaser, host, August 28, 2019. (Podcast, 25:19 min.)
- CNN Business. “What Are the Rare Earth Elements?” No date. (Video, 1:40 min.)
- Davidson, Ros. “Wind Industry Prepares for ‘Bottlenecks and Price Hikes’ in Rare Earth Metals.” Foresight Climate and Energy, republished at Medium.com, August 23, 2019.
- Deutsche Welle News. “Mining Rare Earth Metals with Supergrass.” September 29, 2017. (Video, 3:03 min.)
- Dominish, E., N. Florin, and S. Teske. Responsible Minerals Sourcing for Renewable Energy. Prepared for Earthworks by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, 2019.
- Heffernan, Olive. “Seabed Mining Is Coming—Bringing Mineral Riches and Fears of Epic Extinctions.” Nature, July 24, 2019.
- Hsu, Jeremy. “Don’t Panic about Rare Earth Elements.” Scientific American, May 31, 2019.
- Liu, Hongqiao. “As China Adjusts for ‘True Cost’ of Rare Earths, What Does It Mean for Decarbonization?” Blog, New Security Beat, March 21, 2017.
- Liu, Hongqiao. “The Dark Side of Renewable Energy.” Earth Journalism Network, August 25, 2016
- Liu, Hongqiao. “Rare Earths: Shades of Grey—Can China Continue to Fuel Our Global Clean and Smart Future?” China Water Risk, June 2016.
- Marshall, Jessica. “Why Rare Earth Recycling Is Rare and What We Can Do About It.” Greenbiz, April 14, 2014.
- Materials Research Society. “Impact of Materials on Society (IMOS): Rare Earth Elements.” March 2, 2016. (Video, 17:16 min.)
- Mertzman, Stanley. “Rare Earth Elements Power Tesla Cars and Computers: Here’s What You Need to Know.” National Interest, June 4, 2019.
- Parletta, Natalie. “Rare Earth Minerals Could Be Sourced through Old Batteries, Smartphones, Wind Turbines.” Forbes, November 21, 2019.
- Phadke, Roopali. “Climate Solutions Depend on Rare Earths: Here’s How They Can Be Sourced Responsibly.” Green Biz, February 21, 2019.
- Rasser, Martijn, and Ashley Feng. “This Is How to Solve America’s Rare-Earths Dilemma.” National Interest, June 28, 2019.
- Reisert, Sarah. “Book Club: The Risks and Rewards of Rare Earth Elements.” Distillations, October 30, 2019.
- Royal Society of Chemistry. Interactive Periodic Table. rsc.org.
- Science History Institute. “Rare Earths: The Hidden Cost to Their Magic, Parts 1 and 2.” Distillations, June 25, 2019. (Podcast, part 1, 25:30 min.; part 2, 31:34 min.)
- Shijia, Ouyang. “China Seeks to Improve Managing Rare-Earths Industry.” China Daily, June 4, 2019.
- Shiraki, Maki, and Naomi Tajitsu. “Honda Co-Develops First Hybrid Car Motor Free of Heavy Rare Earth Metals.” Reuters, July 11, 2016.
- Stratfor Worldview. “How This One Rare Earth Processing Plant in Malaysia Could Change the U.S.-China Trade War.” National Interest, August 25, 2019.
- TCO Certified. “Make the Sustainable Choice Easy with TCO Certified.” TCO (Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees).
- Treadgold, Tim. “Down to Earth: Amanda Lacaze Turns Around Australia’s Lynas Corp.” Forbes, November 2, 2017.
- Turner, Roger. “Choosing a Better High-Tech Future.” Distillations, December 10, 2019.
- Turner, Roger. “A Strategic Approach to Rare-Earth Elements as Global Trade Tensions Flare.” Green Tech Media, June 21, 2019.
Further Reading: Print & Ebooks
- Abrahams, David S. The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.
- Kalantzakos, Sophia. China and the Geopolitics of Rare Earths. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
- Klinger, Julie Michelle. Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017.
- Veronese, Keith. Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 2015.