What’s the problem with rare earth minerals? The problem is that they’re rare—maybe even rarer than we used to believe—but they’ve got a major role to fill in the clean energy economy (not to mention consumer electronics).
Rare earth minerals are lightweight, resist heat and are crucial ingredients in the magnets and other components that go into everything from wind turbines to solar cells to hybrid automobiles.
These elements are only rare in that they reside deep in the ground; there are unexploited deposits off these elements in various parts of the world. China mines these minerals, and it’s been exporting them heavily—that is, until recently. According to a PBS Newshour story that aired Monday, China is reducing the amounts of the rare earth minerals it is selling to other companies, because it knows that it will need more of it, going forward, to satisfy its own manufacturing needs.
So now what? There are rare earth minerals under US soil—in fact this country used to be a big player in the mining of the minerals, until China started dominating the industry. To stoke US rare earth mining operations, Congress is considering a bill that would provide loan guarantees to bring up US reserves. A Government Accounting Office report, however, says it could take 15 years to develop the domestic capacity to meet the demand.
Drilling isn’t the only way to procure rare earth minerals—they can also be recaptured, recycled and reused. And boosting recycling rates—which are still pitifully low for rare earth metals like iridium—is a major priority. But recycling won’t be enough, according to Jack Lifton, a metals expert who runs a consultancy and spends much of his time raising alerts over the scarcity of rare earth metals. Here’s a bit of cheery commentary he offered Newshour:
You want a path to a green future? That path starts in a mine. And people who have knee-jerk reactions—‘mining is evil, mining is bad, mining is dirty’—then forget green. Your world will be black.
Wow. All of this, with Deepwater Horizon as the backdrop. It’s a stark reminder that cleantech doesn’t grow on trees, it grows (over billions of years) underground. And while the energy it creates may be inexhaustible, the materials we need to capture it aren’t.