July 23, 2012

A Primer on Rare Earths

In my novel, The Magpie's Secret, I included a brief discussion of neodymium magnets, without which there would be no rock 'n roll or computers. So it's kind of important stuff. Neodymium is one of the so-called rare earths, minerals that are vital to many of the technologies we rely on just about every waking minute of our lives. In addition to computer hard drives, rare earths are essential for the manufacture of televisions, cell phones and rechargeable batteries, including those used in hybrid cars. So take away rare earths and you have pretty much unplugged modern society.

The key thing about rare earths is that 97 percent of the world's supply is controlled by China. Yeah, that China. So, when they say "Made in China," you have no idea. Extracting rare earths is a messy and dangerous process, which is why the rest of the world is content to let the Chinese handle it. The largest rare earth mine, located in Inner Mongolia, generates untreated toxic radioactive wastewater equivalent to two Lake Michigan's every year. Think about that the next time you watch TV or buy batteries or use your cell phone. Our cheap consumer society is bought and paid for in places like Inner Mongolia, where the costs are truly hidden.

Below is an infographic from www.getbuckyballs.com, a producer of executive toys. There is also a neat video explaining the uses of rare earths that is embedded in a BBC article on China's trade quotas and the complaints they have spawned from the rest of the world.

Buckyballs Rare Earth Metals

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