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Episode
85

Rare Earths

First published on
September 1, 2020
How Stuff Works
-
18
minutes
Environment
Technology
China
Consumption

These 17 chemical elements are vital for lots of modern technologies, from smartphones to laptops, wind turbines to electric cars.

But our dependence on them comes at a large cost, a cost that very few people are aware of.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English, the show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Rare Earth Elements, sometimes called Rare Earth Metals, or just ‘Rare Earths’ for short.

[00:00:33] These are the 17 chemical elements that are very important for a lot of the technology that you and I probably use on a daily basis.

[00:00:43] From laptops to mobile phones, electric cars to aeroplanes, missiles to magnets, Rare Earths are almost everywhere. 

[00:00:54] So today, what we are going to do is to take a closer look at what they actually are, whether they are actually that rare, where they are found, what the impact of us using them is, and what the implications might be on how we think about ethically sourced minerals.

[00:01:15] It might be a slightly more technical episode than our usual ones, but bear with me, you don’t need to have any knowledge of chemistry or the periodic table for any of this to make sense.

[00:01:28] So, let’s get started then.

[00:01:31] Rare Earths are elements in the periodic table. There are 17 of them, as I said - I’m not going to name them all, partly because it doesn’t matter that much, and there’s a good chance you might not have heard of them. 

[00:01:46] The first Rare Earth element was discovered by a Swedish soldier, in 1787, and gradually, over the course of the next 120 years, the remaining 16 elements were discovered.

[00:02:02] But contrary to what the name might suggest, they aren’t actually that rare at all.

[00:02:10] There are plenty of elements that are a lot rarer, a lot more rare, than any of the Rare Earths. 

[00:02:17] Gold, for example, is significantly less plentiful than any of the Rare Earth elements. 

[00:02:24] The rarest of the Rare Earths, an element called Thulium, is about 125 times more common than gold. And the most common of the Rare Earth elements, something called Cerium, is 15,000 times more common than gold.

[00:02:44] So, they are not very rare at all. 

[00:02:47] And even if they were rare, in terms of there not being huge deposits of them, they are only really needed in very small quantities, which makes the Earth running out of them not such a great risk.

[00:03:04] But it is difficult to actually separate them from other elements, so isolating a Rare Earth element is complicated, expensive, and nasty work. We’ll come on to why this is relevant in a minute.

[00:03:20] But first, to examine the name of Rare Earths a little bit more, not only are they not rare, but they're also not really ‘Earth’, as you might imagine it. They were just given the name ‘Earth’ because it’s the name for something that can dissolve in acid, not because they actually look like earth.

[00:03:42] So, Rare Earths are neither rare nor earth. 

[00:03:46] It’s at this point I guess you might be wondering why you’re listening to an episode about them, but bear with me. It’s about to get a lot more interesting.

[00:03:57] It turns out that Rare Earth elements have some fantastic properties, they are able to do amazing things, that make them indispensable in a lot of modern technology.

[00:04:10] They can create different types of light in certain conditions, so they are used in euro banknotes for example, Euro paper money, as an anti-fraud measure. 

[00:04:22] When the notes are held under a ultraviolet light, they give off a special kind of light. So when you pay for something with a euro banknote, and the shop assistant passes it under a kind of light to check that it’s real, and it gives off this dazzling light, this is thanks to Rare Earths.

[00:04:44] Rare Earth elements can also be used to make super strong magnets, the kind of ones that could puncture human skin, or more practically speaking, lift something incredibly heavy.

[00:04:58] You’re even using a magnet with a Rare Earth in now, probably, even though I guess you don’t know it - Rare Earths are used in computer hard drives, mobile phones, and speakers. 

[00:05:11] And the list could go on. Batteries for electric cars, magnets in wind turbines, MRI scanners, computer screens, radars, aeroplanes, cameras, lasers, nuclear reactors, they are all over the place.

[00:05:26] And although these Rare Earths aren’t actually very rare at all, they are difficult to extract, and this has meant that the vast majority of the world’s Rare Earths all come from one place. 

[00:05:42] China.

[00:05:44] China produces anywhere from 80-95% of the world’s Rare Earth elements.

[00:05:51] You heard earlier that actually getting these Rare Earth elements is difficult to do. It’s difficult in terms of being hard, messy, and dangerous work, but you don’t need huge, multi-million dollar factories to do it. 

[00:06:09] In fact, when the Rare Earth industry got started in China, in the 60s, it was a bit of a cottage industry, it was something that could be done relatively inexpensively by individual groups of farmers or villages, often illegally, without proper government permission.

[00:06:30] The process of actually getting a finished Rare Earth element means first digging up the ground where these elements are.

[00:06:39] Then you need to actually separate the elements from each other. And this isn’t a case of just rubbing some earth and ta-da, you see a shining Rare Earth element there, like you might imagine happens when you mine for diamonds or gold.

[00:06:57] This process is pretty dangerous, and the soil that contains the Rare Earth elements can often be radioactive.

[00:07:06] Secondly, only a tiny percentage of the earth will contain the Rare Earth elements, and the process of actually getting the finished elements results in a lot of toxic waste. 

[00:07:21] Specifically, to get 1 tonne of Rare Earths, around 75 tonnes of toxic waste is produced.

[00:07:30] The process typically involves crushing the elements into a fine powder, then adding them to big pools, big tanks, with this highly toxic liquid inside, and these tanks are normally just left uncovered.

[00:07:48] There are some amazingly scary pictures of these Rare Earth mines in South China, and of the waste that they have all just left behind.

[00:07:59] If you close your eyes and imagine a beautiful Chinese hillside landscape, then add some highly scenic pools on the side of the hill, but the difference here is that these pools are full of highly toxic, highly polluting acid, that if the pool burst, or if there were a landslide or anything that caused the liquid to escape, it would be hugely damaging to the nearby environment, and if it got into rivers, well that would be a big problem.

[00:08:34] And these Rare Earth elements, even though they were used in lots of high-tech devices, expensive technologies, they were actually pretty cheap. Extracting Rare Earths wasn’t a profitable activity by any means.

[00:08:50] Indeed, there were also Rare Earth mines outside China, including a big one in California, but it just wasn’t profitable enough to keep them going. Not only were Rare Earth elements quite cheap, but it was expensive to extract them in an environmentally friendly way. So the majority of these non-Chinese mines just stopped, they went out of business, leaving China to have a virtual monopoly on Rare Earths, not because it was better, or because they exist only in China, but because China could produce them at a lower cost.

[00:09:32] There are still thousands of these ponds in the hills of Southern China, filled with highly toxic waste from producing these Rare Earths.

[00:09:42] When the Rare Earth elements were sold, the price was too low to factor in the cost of the clean up, and so now these Rare Earth mines are left with these pools that dot the hills, and no plan about how to get rid of the waste.

[00:10:02] There are two differing points of view on this.

[00:10:06] The Chinese side argues that actually the consumers of Rare Earths should pay the price for the clean-up - the technology companies that bought the Rare Earths at the prices that didn’t reflect the cost of the clean up. 

[00:10:22] They say that the West has got used to cheap technology, and hasn’t had to pay for the environmental costs of production.

[00:10:32] Naturally, the technology companies aren’t having any of it. They paid for the Rare Earths, it’s not their problem if these Chinese Rare Earth mines gave them a price that was so low that it didn’t factor in cleaning it up properly.

[00:10:48] It is an interesting question. 

[00:10:50] When most of us look at our mobile phone, TV, or camera, we don’t necessarily think of this as having the same environmental or societal impact as when we consider, let’s say, buying a plastic water bottle, or deciding whether to buy something that is fair trade or not.

[00:11:11] Of course, the considerations and impacts are different, but the principle is similar - a lot of the ‘dirty work’ in the production of electronics has been outsourced to countries where environmental restrictions are significantly less strict.

[00:11:29] There’s an expression in English, which is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. If you hadn’t guessed what it means, it means that if you can’t see something, you don’t think about it.

[00:11:41] I know that there are similar expressions in other languages, interestingly in French and Italian it would be translated as ‘far from your eyes, far from your heart’, which is a lot more romantic, but you get the gist.

[00:11:56] Rare Earths are definitely a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It’s dirty, difficult work, and there is a significant environmental cost that most of us aren’t aware of.

[00:12:10] The Rare Earths that go into a smartphone typically result in around 380g of toxic waste, for a laptop it’s around 1.22kg of toxic waste, and for the battery that goes in an electric car, it’s almost 3kg or toxic waste, just to produce the Rare Earths.

[00:12:33] And if you are wondering where this waste actually now goes, the answer might surprise you.

[00:12:41] The semi-amateur Rare Earth mines in South China are no longer really in use, although the toxic pools are still there.

[00:12:51] Production has shifted north, it has moved north, and there is a huge Rare Earth mine in an area of China called Inner Mongolia, next to the border with Mongolia.

[00:13:05] Unlike the semi-amateur operations down south, in Inner Mongolia there are huge mines, the largest of which is called Bayan'obo. It’s here that 40% of the world’s Rare Earths are produced, and the area is dominated by the Rare Earth mine.

[00:13:26] And even though the process may be more industrialised, and more professional, it doesn’t really make it any more environmentally friendly. There was a BBC article about it and the title of the article was ‘The Worst Place on Earth’.

[00:13:45] In the area around the Rare Earth mines of Bayan’obo, instead of there being lots of small pools filled with this toxic waste from Rare Earths, there is an 8 kilometre wide lake. It was described by the journalist writing the article as ‘Hell on Earth’.

[00:14:05] The pictures really are quite something to behold, and it does look like it's something out of a dystopian horror film rather than the world that we actually live in, and a byproduct of many of the products that we all use, including the laptop or phone that you are probably listening to this on.

[00:14:27] The end result, the phone, tablet, or Tesla electric car, is incredibly clean, and it is many degrees separated from the mines at Bayan’obo, but there is probably a good chance that a very small part of the device that you are using, at some point, did pass through this part of China.

[00:14:51] But China doesn’t want to be stuck doing this dirty, low-end work of just producing Rare Earth elements. 

[00:15:00] It might have been happy to do the world’s dirty work in the 1990s or early 2000s, but as it is trying to transition to a more services, technology-led economy, it would rather not be messing around with toxic lakes and hazardous liquids, and wants to be making the batteries, the phones, the actual components itself, doing the more highly-skilled, more profitable work.

[00:15:32] China has even experimented with banning the exports of pure Rare Earth elements, and it did so to Japan in 2010, after a diplomatic incident.

[00:15:45] Commentators are split, they are undecided, over what the impact would be if there was a global export ban on Rare Earth elements.

[00:15:57] There are those who say it could be devastating to the global technology supply chain, and would mean that more people ended up buying Chinese electronics, because the Rare Earths couldn't be exported to foreign companies.

[00:16:13] But there are others who say that actually it wouldn’t be a huge deal. After the ban on exports to Japan, Japanese companies found ways to use fewer Rare Earths, plus - as we said before - Rare Earths really aren’t that rare, and other countries would end up doing the dirty work that China does, if the demand was high enough of course.

[00:16:39] So what can we take, if anything, from today's story?

[00:16:44] It’s really a tale of the global supply chain, how many high-tech, or even ‘green’ products that end up bought by consumers all over the world actually start out somewhere very different. We might already know, and have seen images, of how iPhones or TVs are produced in factories, and maybe you have read stories about how little these workers might be being paid, and the conditions in which they work.

[00:17:14] But what is far less known is the environmental impact of the raw materials that actually go into these products.

[00:17:23] And when it comes to Rare Earth elements, and smartphones, TVs, and even electric cars, it’s clear that the environmental impact is not insignificant, but that the general view on this seems to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

[00:17:43] OK, that is it for today's episode on Rare Earth elements. 

[00:17:49] As always, I would love to know what you thought of the show, the email is hi@leonardoenglish.com.

[00:17:57] Our next episode is actually on electric cars, which as you’ve heard, need Rare Earths to function, so I hope you’ll enjoy that one too.

[00:18:07] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English.

[00:18:12] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]



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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English, the show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Rare Earth Elements, sometimes called Rare Earth Metals, or just ‘Rare Earths’ for short.

[00:00:33] These are the 17 chemical elements that are very important for a lot of the technology that you and I probably use on a daily basis.

[00:00:43] From laptops to mobile phones, electric cars to aeroplanes, missiles to magnets, Rare Earths are almost everywhere. 

[00:00:54] So today, what we are going to do is to take a closer look at what they actually are, whether they are actually that rare, where they are found, what the impact of us using them is, and what the implications might be on how we think about ethically sourced minerals.

[00:01:15] It might be a slightly more technical episode than our usual ones, but bear with me, you don’t need to have any knowledge of chemistry or the periodic table for any of this to make sense.

[00:01:28] So, let’s get started then.

[00:01:31] Rare Earths are elements in the periodic table. There are 17 of them, as I said - I’m not going to name them all, partly because it doesn’t matter that much, and there’s a good chance you might not have heard of them. 

[00:01:46] The first Rare Earth element was discovered by a Swedish soldier, in 1787, and gradually, over the course of the next 120 years, the remaining 16 elements were discovered.

[00:02:02] But contrary to what the name might suggest, they aren’t actually that rare at all.

[00:02:10] There are plenty of elements that are a lot rarer, a lot more rare, than any of the Rare Earths. 

[00:02:17] Gold, for example, is significantly less plentiful than any of the Rare Earth elements. 

[00:02:24] The rarest of the Rare Earths, an element called Thulium, is about 125 times more common than gold. And the most common of the Rare Earth elements, something called Cerium, is 15,000 times more common than gold.

[00:02:44] So, they are not very rare at all. 

[00:02:47] And even if they were rare, in terms of there not being huge deposits of them, they are only really needed in very small quantities, which makes the Earth running out of them not such a great risk.

[00:03:04] But it is difficult to actually separate them from other elements, so isolating a Rare Earth element is complicated, expensive, and nasty work. We’ll come on to why this is relevant in a minute.

[00:03:20] But first, to examine the name of Rare Earths a little bit more, not only are they not rare, but they're also not really ‘Earth’, as you might imagine it. They were just given the name ‘Earth’ because it’s the name for something that can dissolve in acid, not because they actually look like earth.

[00:03:42] So, Rare Earths are neither rare nor earth. 

[00:03:46] It’s at this point I guess you might be wondering why you’re listening to an episode about them, but bear with me. It’s about to get a lot more interesting.

[00:03:57] It turns out that Rare Earth elements have some fantastic properties, they are able to do amazing things, that make them indispensable in a lot of modern technology.

[00:04:10] They can create different types of light in certain conditions, so they are used in euro banknotes for example, Euro paper money, as an anti-fraud measure. 

[00:04:22] When the notes are held under a ultraviolet light, they give off a special kind of light. So when you pay for something with a euro banknote, and the shop assistant passes it under a kind of light to check that it’s real, and it gives off this dazzling light, this is thanks to Rare Earths.

[00:04:44] Rare Earth elements can also be used to make super strong magnets, the kind of ones that could puncture human skin, or more practically speaking, lift something incredibly heavy.

[00:04:58] You’re even using a magnet with a Rare Earth in now, probably, even though I guess you don’t know it - Rare Earths are used in computer hard drives, mobile phones, and speakers. 

[00:05:11] And the list could go on. Batteries for electric cars, magnets in wind turbines, MRI scanners, computer screens, radars, aeroplanes, cameras, lasers, nuclear reactors, they are all over the place.

[00:05:26] And although these Rare Earths aren’t actually very rare at all, they are difficult to extract, and this has meant that the vast majority of the world’s Rare Earths all come from one place. 

[00:05:42] China.

[00:05:44] China produces anywhere from 80-95% of the world’s Rare Earth elements.

[00:05:51] You heard earlier that actually getting these Rare Earth elements is difficult to do. It’s difficult in terms of being hard, messy, and dangerous work, but you don’t need huge, multi-million dollar factories to do it. 

[00:06:09] In fact, when the Rare Earth industry got started in China, in the 60s, it was a bit of a cottage industry, it was something that could be done relatively inexpensively by individual groups of farmers or villages, often illegally, without proper government permission.

[00:06:30] The process of actually getting a finished Rare Earth element means first digging up the ground where these elements are.

[00:06:39] Then you need to actually separate the elements from each other. And this isn’t a case of just rubbing some earth and ta-da, you see a shining Rare Earth element there, like you might imagine happens when you mine for diamonds or gold.

[00:06:57] This process is pretty dangerous, and the soil that contains the Rare Earth elements can often be radioactive.

[00:07:06] Secondly, only a tiny percentage of the earth will contain the Rare Earth elements, and the process of actually getting the finished elements results in a lot of toxic waste. 

[00:07:21] Specifically, to get 1 tonne of Rare Earths, around 75 tonnes of toxic waste is produced.

[00:07:30] The process typically involves crushing the elements into a fine powder, then adding them to big pools, big tanks, with this highly toxic liquid inside, and these tanks are normally just left uncovered.

[00:07:48] There are some amazingly scary pictures of these Rare Earth mines in South China, and of the waste that they have all just left behind.

[00:07:59] If you close your eyes and imagine a beautiful Chinese hillside landscape, then add some highly scenic pools on the side of the hill, but the difference here is that these pools are full of highly toxic, highly polluting acid, that if the pool burst, or if there were a landslide or anything that caused the liquid to escape, it would be hugely damaging to the nearby environment, and if it got into rivers, well that would be a big problem.

[00:08:34] And these Rare Earth elements, even though they were used in lots of high-tech devices, expensive technologies, they were actually pretty cheap. Extracting Rare Earths wasn’t a profitable activity by any means.

[00:08:50] Indeed, there were also Rare Earth mines outside China, including a big one in California, but it just wasn’t profitable enough to keep them going. Not only were Rare Earth elements quite cheap, but it was expensive to extract them in an environmentally friendly way. So the majority of these non-Chinese mines just stopped, they went out of business, leaving China to have a virtual monopoly on Rare Earths, not because it was better, or because they exist only in China, but because China could produce them at a lower cost.

[00:09:32] There are still thousands of these ponds in the hills of Southern China, filled with highly toxic waste from producing these Rare Earths.

[00:09:42] When the Rare Earth elements were sold, the price was too low to factor in the cost of the clean up, and so now these Rare Earth mines are left with these pools that dot the hills, and no plan about how to get rid of the waste.

[00:10:02] There are two differing points of view on this.

[00:10:06] The Chinese side argues that actually the consumers of Rare Earths should pay the price for the clean-up - the technology companies that bought the Rare Earths at the prices that didn’t reflect the cost of the clean up. 

[00:10:22] They say that the West has got used to cheap technology, and hasn’t had to pay for the environmental costs of production.

[00:10:32] Naturally, the technology companies aren’t having any of it. They paid for the Rare Earths, it’s not their problem if these Chinese Rare Earth mines gave them a price that was so low that it didn’t factor in cleaning it up properly.

[00:10:48] It is an interesting question. 

[00:10:50] When most of us look at our mobile phone, TV, or camera, we don’t necessarily think of this as having the same environmental or societal impact as when we consider, let’s say, buying a plastic water bottle, or deciding whether to buy something that is fair trade or not.

[00:11:11] Of course, the considerations and impacts are different, but the principle is similar - a lot of the ‘dirty work’ in the production of electronics has been outsourced to countries where environmental restrictions are significantly less strict.

[00:11:29] There’s an expression in English, which is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. If you hadn’t guessed what it means, it means that if you can’t see something, you don’t think about it.

[00:11:41] I know that there are similar expressions in other languages, interestingly in French and Italian it would be translated as ‘far from your eyes, far from your heart’, which is a lot more romantic, but you get the gist.

[00:11:56] Rare Earths are definitely a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It’s dirty, difficult work, and there is a significant environmental cost that most of us aren’t aware of.

[00:12:10] The Rare Earths that go into a smartphone typically result in around 380g of toxic waste, for a laptop it’s around 1.22kg of toxic waste, and for the battery that goes in an electric car, it’s almost 3kg or toxic waste, just to produce the Rare Earths.

[00:12:33] And if you are wondering where this waste actually now goes, the answer might surprise you.

[00:12:41] The semi-amateur Rare Earth mines in South China are no longer really in use, although the toxic pools are still there.

[00:12:51] Production has shifted north, it has moved north, and there is a huge Rare Earth mine in an area of China called Inner Mongolia, next to the border with Mongolia.

[00:13:05] Unlike the semi-amateur operations down south, in Inner Mongolia there are huge mines, the largest of which is called Bayan'obo. It’s here that 40% of the world’s Rare Earths are produced, and the area is dominated by the Rare Earth mine.

[00:13:26] And even though the process may be more industrialised, and more professional, it doesn’t really make it any more environmentally friendly. There was a BBC article about it and the title of the article was ‘The Worst Place on Earth’.

[00:13:45] In the area around the Rare Earth mines of Bayan’obo, instead of there being lots of small pools filled with this toxic waste from Rare Earths, there is an 8 kilometre wide lake. It was described by the journalist writing the article as ‘Hell on Earth’.

[00:14:05] The pictures really are quite something to behold, and it does look like it's something out of a dystopian horror film rather than the world that we actually live in, and a byproduct of many of the products that we all use, including the laptop or phone that you are probably listening to this on.

[00:14:27] The end result, the phone, tablet, or Tesla electric car, is incredibly clean, and it is many degrees separated from the mines at Bayan’obo, but there is probably a good chance that a very small part of the device that you are using, at some point, did pass through this part of China.

[00:14:51] But China doesn’t want to be stuck doing this dirty, low-end work of just producing Rare Earth elements. 

[00:15:00] It might have been happy to do the world’s dirty work in the 1990s or early 2000s, but as it is trying to transition to a more services, technology-led economy, it would rather not be messing around with toxic lakes and hazardous liquids, and wants to be making the batteries, the phones, the actual components itself, doing the more highly-skilled, more profitable work.

[00:15:32] China has even experimented with banning the exports of pure Rare Earth elements, and it did so to Japan in 2010, after a diplomatic incident.

[00:15:45] Commentators are split, they are undecided, over what the impact would be if there was a global export ban on Rare Earth elements.

[00:15:57] There are those who say it could be devastating to the global technology supply chain, and would mean that more people ended up buying Chinese electronics, because the Rare Earths couldn't be exported to foreign companies.

[00:16:13] But there are others who say that actually it wouldn’t be a huge deal. After the ban on exports to Japan, Japanese companies found ways to use fewer Rare Earths, plus - as we said before - Rare Earths really aren’t that rare, and other countries would end up doing the dirty work that China does, if the demand was high enough of course.

[00:16:39] So what can we take, if anything, from today's story?

[00:16:44] It’s really a tale of the global supply chain, how many high-tech, or even ‘green’ products that end up bought by consumers all over the world actually start out somewhere very different. We might already know, and have seen images, of how iPhones or TVs are produced in factories, and maybe you have read stories about how little these workers might be being paid, and the conditions in which they work.

[00:17:14] But what is far less known is the environmental impact of the raw materials that actually go into these products.

[00:17:23] And when it comes to Rare Earth elements, and smartphones, TVs, and even electric cars, it’s clear that the environmental impact is not insignificant, but that the general view on this seems to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

[00:17:43] OK, that is it for today's episode on Rare Earth elements. 

[00:17:49] As always, I would love to know what you thought of the show, the email is hi@leonardoenglish.com.

[00:17:57] Our next episode is actually on electric cars, which as you’ve heard, need Rare Earths to function, so I hope you’ll enjoy that one too.

[00:18:07] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English.

[00:18:12] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]



[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English, the show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Rare Earth Elements, sometimes called Rare Earth Metals, or just ‘Rare Earths’ for short.

[00:00:33] These are the 17 chemical elements that are very important for a lot of the technology that you and I probably use on a daily basis.

[00:00:43] From laptops to mobile phones, electric cars to aeroplanes, missiles to magnets, Rare Earths are almost everywhere. 

[00:00:54] So today, what we are going to do is to take a closer look at what they actually are, whether they are actually that rare, where they are found, what the impact of us using them is, and what the implications might be on how we think about ethically sourced minerals.

[00:01:15] It might be a slightly more technical episode than our usual ones, but bear with me, you don’t need to have any knowledge of chemistry or the periodic table for any of this to make sense.

[00:01:28] So, let’s get started then.

[00:01:31] Rare Earths are elements in the periodic table. There are 17 of them, as I said - I’m not going to name them all, partly because it doesn’t matter that much, and there’s a good chance you might not have heard of them. 

[00:01:46] The first Rare Earth element was discovered by a Swedish soldier, in 1787, and gradually, over the course of the next 120 years, the remaining 16 elements were discovered.

[00:02:02] But contrary to what the name might suggest, they aren’t actually that rare at all.

[00:02:10] There are plenty of elements that are a lot rarer, a lot more rare, than any of the Rare Earths. 

[00:02:17] Gold, for example, is significantly less plentiful than any of the Rare Earth elements. 

[00:02:24] The rarest of the Rare Earths, an element called Thulium, is about 125 times more common than gold. And the most common of the Rare Earth elements, something called Cerium, is 15,000 times more common than gold.

[00:02:44] So, they are not very rare at all. 

[00:02:47] And even if they were rare, in terms of there not being huge deposits of them, they are only really needed in very small quantities, which makes the Earth running out of them not such a great risk.

[00:03:04] But it is difficult to actually separate them from other elements, so isolating a Rare Earth element is complicated, expensive, and nasty work. We’ll come on to why this is relevant in a minute.

[00:03:20] But first, to examine the name of Rare Earths a little bit more, not only are they not rare, but they're also not really ‘Earth’, as you might imagine it. They were just given the name ‘Earth’ because it’s the name for something that can dissolve in acid, not because they actually look like earth.

[00:03:42] So, Rare Earths are neither rare nor earth. 

[00:03:46] It’s at this point I guess you might be wondering why you’re listening to an episode about them, but bear with me. It’s about to get a lot more interesting.

[00:03:57] It turns out that Rare Earth elements have some fantastic properties, they are able to do amazing things, that make them indispensable in a lot of modern technology.

[00:04:10] They can create different types of light in certain conditions, so they are used in euro banknotes for example, Euro paper money, as an anti-fraud measure. 

[00:04:22] When the notes are held under a ultraviolet light, they give off a special kind of light. So when you pay for something with a euro banknote, and the shop assistant passes it under a kind of light to check that it’s real, and it gives off this dazzling light, this is thanks to Rare Earths.

[00:04:44] Rare Earth elements can also be used to make super strong magnets, the kind of ones that could puncture human skin, or more practically speaking, lift something incredibly heavy.

[00:04:58] You’re even using a magnet with a Rare Earth in now, probably, even though I guess you don’t know it - Rare Earths are used in computer hard drives, mobile phones, and speakers. 

[00:05:11] And the list could go on. Batteries for electric cars, magnets in wind turbines, MRI scanners, computer screens, radars, aeroplanes, cameras, lasers, nuclear reactors, they are all over the place.

[00:05:26] And although these Rare Earths aren’t actually very rare at all, they are difficult to extract, and this has meant that the vast majority of the world’s Rare Earths all come from one place. 

[00:05:42] China.

[00:05:44] China produces anywhere from 80-95% of the world’s Rare Earth elements.

[00:05:51] You heard earlier that actually getting these Rare Earth elements is difficult to do. It’s difficult in terms of being hard, messy, and dangerous work, but you don’t need huge, multi-million dollar factories to do it. 

[00:06:09] In fact, when the Rare Earth industry got started in China, in the 60s, it was a bit of a cottage industry, it was something that could be done relatively inexpensively by individual groups of farmers or villages, often illegally, without proper government permission.

[00:06:30] The process of actually getting a finished Rare Earth element means first digging up the ground where these elements are.

[00:06:39] Then you need to actually separate the elements from each other. And this isn’t a case of just rubbing some earth and ta-da, you see a shining Rare Earth element there, like you might imagine happens when you mine for diamonds or gold.

[00:06:57] This process is pretty dangerous, and the soil that contains the Rare Earth elements can often be radioactive.

[00:07:06] Secondly, only a tiny percentage of the earth will contain the Rare Earth elements, and the process of actually getting the finished elements results in a lot of toxic waste. 

[00:07:21] Specifically, to get 1 tonne of Rare Earths, around 75 tonnes of toxic waste is produced.

[00:07:30] The process typically involves crushing the elements into a fine powder, then adding them to big pools, big tanks, with this highly toxic liquid inside, and these tanks are normally just left uncovered.

[00:07:48] There are some amazingly scary pictures of these Rare Earth mines in South China, and of the waste that they have all just left behind.

[00:07:59] If you close your eyes and imagine a beautiful Chinese hillside landscape, then add some highly scenic pools on the side of the hill, but the difference here is that these pools are full of highly toxic, highly polluting acid, that if the pool burst, or if there were a landslide or anything that caused the liquid to escape, it would be hugely damaging to the nearby environment, and if it got into rivers, well that would be a big problem.

[00:08:34] And these Rare Earth elements, even though they were used in lots of high-tech devices, expensive technologies, they were actually pretty cheap. Extracting Rare Earths wasn’t a profitable activity by any means.

[00:08:50] Indeed, there were also Rare Earth mines outside China, including a big one in California, but it just wasn’t profitable enough to keep them going. Not only were Rare Earth elements quite cheap, but it was expensive to extract them in an environmentally friendly way. So the majority of these non-Chinese mines just stopped, they went out of business, leaving China to have a virtual monopoly on Rare Earths, not because it was better, or because they exist only in China, but because China could produce them at a lower cost.

[00:09:32] There are still thousands of these ponds in the hills of Southern China, filled with highly toxic waste from producing these Rare Earths.

[00:09:42] When the Rare Earth elements were sold, the price was too low to factor in the cost of the clean up, and so now these Rare Earth mines are left with these pools that dot the hills, and no plan about how to get rid of the waste.

[00:10:02] There are two differing points of view on this.

[00:10:06] The Chinese side argues that actually the consumers of Rare Earths should pay the price for the clean-up - the technology companies that bought the Rare Earths at the prices that didn’t reflect the cost of the clean up. 

[00:10:22] They say that the West has got used to cheap technology, and hasn’t had to pay for the environmental costs of production.

[00:10:32] Naturally, the technology companies aren’t having any of it. They paid for the Rare Earths, it’s not their problem if these Chinese Rare Earth mines gave them a price that was so low that it didn’t factor in cleaning it up properly.

[00:10:48] It is an interesting question. 

[00:10:50] When most of us look at our mobile phone, TV, or camera, we don’t necessarily think of this as having the same environmental or societal impact as when we consider, let’s say, buying a plastic water bottle, or deciding whether to buy something that is fair trade or not.

[00:11:11] Of course, the considerations and impacts are different, but the principle is similar - a lot of the ‘dirty work’ in the production of electronics has been outsourced to countries where environmental restrictions are significantly less strict.

[00:11:29] There’s an expression in English, which is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. If you hadn’t guessed what it means, it means that if you can’t see something, you don’t think about it.

[00:11:41] I know that there are similar expressions in other languages, interestingly in French and Italian it would be translated as ‘far from your eyes, far from your heart’, which is a lot more romantic, but you get the gist.

[00:11:56] Rare Earths are definitely a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It’s dirty, difficult work, and there is a significant environmental cost that most of us aren’t aware of.

[00:12:10] The Rare Earths that go into a smartphone typically result in around 380g of toxic waste, for a laptop it’s around 1.22kg of toxic waste, and for the battery that goes in an electric car, it’s almost 3kg or toxic waste, just to produce the Rare Earths.

[00:12:33] And if you are wondering where this waste actually now goes, the answer might surprise you.

[00:12:41] The semi-amateur Rare Earth mines in South China are no longer really in use, although the toxic pools are still there.

[00:12:51] Production has shifted north, it has moved north, and there is a huge Rare Earth mine in an area of China called Inner Mongolia, next to the border with Mongolia.

[00:13:05] Unlike the semi-amateur operations down south, in Inner Mongolia there are huge mines, the largest of which is called Bayan'obo. It’s here that 40% of the world’s Rare Earths are produced, and the area is dominated by the Rare Earth mine.

[00:13:26] And even though the process may be more industrialised, and more professional, it doesn’t really make it any more environmentally friendly. There was a BBC article about it and the title of the article was ‘The Worst Place on Earth’.

[00:13:45] In the area around the Rare Earth mines of Bayan’obo, instead of there being lots of small pools filled with this toxic waste from Rare Earths, there is an 8 kilometre wide lake. It was described by the journalist writing the article as ‘Hell on Earth’.

[00:14:05] The pictures really are quite something to behold, and it does look like it's something out of a dystopian horror film rather than the world that we actually live in, and a byproduct of many of the products that we all use, including the laptop or phone that you are probably listening to this on.

[00:14:27] The end result, the phone, tablet, or Tesla electric car, is incredibly clean, and it is many degrees separated from the mines at Bayan’obo, but there is probably a good chance that a very small part of the device that you are using, at some point, did pass through this part of China.

[00:14:51] But China doesn’t want to be stuck doing this dirty, low-end work of just producing Rare Earth elements. 

[00:15:00] It might have been happy to do the world’s dirty work in the 1990s or early 2000s, but as it is trying to transition to a more services, technology-led economy, it would rather not be messing around with toxic lakes and hazardous liquids, and wants to be making the batteries, the phones, the actual components itself, doing the more highly-skilled, more profitable work.

[00:15:32] China has even experimented with banning the exports of pure Rare Earth elements, and it did so to Japan in 2010, after a diplomatic incident.

[00:15:45] Commentators are split, they are undecided, over what the impact would be if there was a global export ban on Rare Earth elements.

[00:15:57] There are those who say it could be devastating to the global technology supply chain, and would mean that more people ended up buying Chinese electronics, because the Rare Earths couldn't be exported to foreign companies.

[00:16:13] But there are others who say that actually it wouldn’t be a huge deal. After the ban on exports to Japan, Japanese companies found ways to use fewer Rare Earths, plus - as we said before - Rare Earths really aren’t that rare, and other countries would end up doing the dirty work that China does, if the demand was high enough of course.

[00:16:39] So what can we take, if anything, from today's story?

[00:16:44] It’s really a tale of the global supply chain, how many high-tech, or even ‘green’ products that end up bought by consumers all over the world actually start out somewhere very different. We might already know, and have seen images, of how iPhones or TVs are produced in factories, and maybe you have read stories about how little these workers might be being paid, and the conditions in which they work.

[00:17:14] But what is far less known is the environmental impact of the raw materials that actually go into these products.

[00:17:23] And when it comes to Rare Earth elements, and smartphones, TVs, and even electric cars, it’s clear that the environmental impact is not insignificant, but that the general view on this seems to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

[00:17:43] OK, that is it for today's episode on Rare Earth elements. 

[00:17:49] As always, I would love to know what you thought of the show, the email is hi@leonardoenglish.com.

[00:17:57] Our next episode is actually on electric cars, which as you’ve heard, need Rare Earths to function, so I hope you’ll enjoy that one too.

[00:18:07] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English.

[00:18:12] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.

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