Rare earth elements are an essential ingredient of modern technologies, but poor regulation has led to environmental ruin.
Japanese researchers say they have found evidence of rare earth elements under the seas in French Polynesia. Photograph: Douglas Peebles/Corbis
A new global gold rush is under way. But today's prospectors aren't the fortune hunters of old, panning for precious nuggets on the American frontier. They're mining companies hoping to find lucrative deposits of rare earths, the 17 elements vital for the production of smartphones, laptops, electric cars, wind turbines and other technologies.
Although rare earths are abundant in the earth's crust, they are difficult to find in commercially viable concentrations. Extracting individual elements from the host mineral's chemistry is a complex and energy-intensive process, involving strong acids and other hazardous chemicals. Radioactive materials such as uranium and thorium are often found alongside rare earth elements, and these can end up in the "tailings" – a toxic stew of waste products from the refinement process.
In recent years the business of mining and processing rare earths has fallen almost exclusively to China, with catastrophic results. Communities living around the Bayan-Obo mining area in Inner Mongolia have had their crops, health and water supply ruined by a large, poorly maintained tailings lake. In Southern China, ion-absorption clay deposits rich with the most valuable "heavy" rare earths have given rise to illegal mining and smuggling operations.
For more than two decades Beijing effectively turned a blind eye; lax regulation of the industry allowed it to sell rare earths at low prices and dominate the global market. That changed in 2010 when China cut export quotas on rare earth supplies by almost 40%, citing a desire to clean up the mess the industry had created, consolidate it into several large districts and crack down on illegal smuggling – believed to account for almost a third of all rare earth elements that left the country in 2008.
China not only produces rare earth intermediate products, such as metals, alloys and carbonates, but manufactures the LEDs, catalysts, batteries and magnets that make use of them. According to Professor Saleem Ali, director of the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining, that makes it "very difficult to track and trace [rare earth elements] from the mine to the product, because a lot of electronics manufacturers are outsourcing their product manufacturing and operations to Chinese companies, which get that material from somewhere within China".
Buyers in the US, EU and Japan were frustrated, convinced that China was using its effective monopoly of the market (estimated at the time as 95% of supply) to force up prices and encourage high-tech manufacturers further up the supply chain to shift their operations to the country. An appeal to the World Trade Organisation resulted in a ruling that Chinese restrictions on exports are incompatible with its rules, although Beijing is expected to appeal.
The Oeko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology) fears the "global pressure for a steady rare earth supply might lead to further new mines outside of China with unacceptable environmental standards".
Rich deposits of rare earths have already been identified in Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and Laos, as well as Canada, Greenland, Australia and the US. Japanese researchers claim to have discovered vast deposits of rare earth minerals in the seabed in international waters, east and west of Hawaii and east of Tahiti in French Polynesia. The high upfront costs of establishing a mine, and potentially long and complex approval processes, could prevent many of these deposits from being exploited in the near-term.
Yet existing mines in Australia a0nd the US, which were forced out of business by cheap Chinese exports, have recently reopened. Mountain Pass Mine in California now features state-of-the-art waste processing facilities (it faced heavy fines before its closure for failing to report radiation-laced wastewater spills).
Lynas Corporation, which owns the Mount Weld mine site in Western Australian (reportedly one of the richest deposits in the world), has built a processing plant in Kuantan, Malaysia, the first to be finished outside China in three decades. The plant faced opposition from groups such asSave Malaysia Stop Lynas, after fears of a repeat of the radioactive contamination caused by the Asian Rare Earth plant in Bukit Merah two decades ago, blamed for birth defects and an increase in local cancer cases.
In Greenland, the government has overturned the country's 25-year ban on uranium and rare earth mining in the hope of boosting the country's cash-strapped economy. But there are concerns that the proposed mines will harm fragile ecosystems, and damage the traditional Inuit fishing and hunting trades. And several years on from China's rare earth export restrictions, which kick-started the hunt for alternative supply chains, smuggling and environmental damage is still an issue.
Siemens, Samsung, Toyota and other major technology manufacturers are already designing new products that use fewer rare earths or substitute materials. Recycle rates of rare earths from existing products, very low because of the expense and complexity involved, may also increase in future (Honda has already begun extracting more than 80% of its rare earth materials from nickel-metal hydride batteries).
Julian Kirby, lead campaigner for Friends of the Earth's Make It Better initiative, which aims to make companies come clean about their supply chains, is adamant that "environmental costs must be factored into the prices of rare earths", creating an incentive to recycle existing materials.
Kirby also believes there should be "a step change in reporting" to ensure it includes non-financial information. Only then will electronics manufacturers take greater responsibility for the way rare earth elements are mined and refined.