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A Rare Problem

Rare earth elements are much in the news these days. Chemical and Engineering News, Forbes, and CHF’s own First Friday each offer their take on the subject, albeit with very different audiences in mind.

Why the fuss? Modern life depends on the availability of the rare earths, most of which reside in the lanthanide neighborhood of the periodic table. If you take away these elements, you’d also take away cell phones, hybrid vehicles, low energy lighting, and various approaches to innovative energy production. Since China controls 98% of the world’s production of rare earths, China also controls much of contemporary civilization and its progress.

A recent and careful analysis by M.I.T. researchers that tries to analyze future demand of rare earths is worth noting. The case examined is the use of dysprosium (Dy) and neodymium (Nd) in clean technologies (wind energy and electric vehicles). Assuming that society is able to meet the goal of stabilizing at 450 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, the results predict huge increases in the demand for these rare elements, likely exceeding our ability to extract them from current mines.

The solution? Since rare earths are mined together, market forces may push other elements as substitutes. Alternatively, recycling and reuse could contribute to supply shortages. The authors also hopefully note that government intervention and corporate responsibility could intervene if markets do not.

These last two are admirable, perhaps, but Americans would disagree on their meaning or utility, and one wonders if China and its partners could ever converge on common interests. Hence, rare earths may continue to live up to their name for the foreseeable future.

Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.

Related:
We May Soon Be Talking About Rare Earths Less Rarely [Periodic Tabloid]
Industrial Vitamins [Chemical Heritage]
First Friday: Counterfeit Cash [Visit CHF]

Posted In: Policy | Technology

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