“Rare Earth Elements”
by Tim Folger
National Geographic, June 2011
Rare Earths: The Dark Side of Green
Hybrid cars, wind turbines, and other green technologies would not exist were it not for an obscure but indispensable group of metals called rare earths. The magnets in a single large wind turbine contain as much as two tons of a rare earth element called neodymium; 25 pounds of rare earths go into every Toyota Prius—an amount expected to double in coming years. Compact fluorescent light bulbs use them; so do catalytic converters, which reduce the pollutants in automobile exhaust; they’re in the rechargeable batteries of laptops, cell phones, and cameras. Global demand for rare earths will explode in the decades ahead, driven by our urgent need for alternative energy systems and the unbridled proliferation of consumer electronics.
But there’s a dark side to the rare earth story. Like so many commodities, rare earths come from China, and mining them is a dirty, dangerous, and in some cases, criminal business, with mines in parts of the country controlled by violent gangs. With a bit over 50 percent of the world’s rare earth reserves, China has cornered the global market by undercutting other suppliers, and now produces about 95 percent of the world’s rare earths. That dominance has come at a steep cost to China’s environment.
Baotau, the world’s rare earth capital, is a boomtown city of 2,300,000 in Inner Mongolia, not far from the oldest section of the Great Wall; Ghengis Khan’s mausoleum is just 60 miles away. Some 80 percent of China’s deposits are mined and processed in Baotau, often by workers with little or no protection against toxic chemicals. And for nearby farmers—who have seen their land, water, and crops blighted by mining waste—the metals that promise a bright, green future for the rest of the world have brought only hardship and despair.
Last fall, China rattled international markets when it announced plans for sharp cuts of rare earth exports, a strategy intended to pressure other countries to shift some high tech manufacturing to China. The move has stirred desperate efforts by governments around the world to develop their own rare earth resources. But for now China remains firmly in control of those vital metals, a situation with grave national security implications: The U.S. military relies almost completely on China’s rare earths for making night vision goggles, range finders, precision-guided munitions, cruise missiles, and other weapons.
I would like to write a 3,000to4,00-word article about the terrible irony that some of our greenest technologies depend, for now at least, on China’s ruinous mines. I would start the story in Baotau, where the Chinese government plans to build a Silicon Valley of rare earth research, with the expectation that China will one day produce both the raw materials and the technologies needed for a low-carbon future. I would like to meet with Chinese officials, workers, and villagers; I’d look into the belated efforts the United States, Australia, Greenland, and Canada are making to develop their own rare earth resources; I’d explore the science of rare earths—what are the properties that make them irreplaceable? I hope to write a multi-layered story that would put a human face on the as yet hidden costs of green technologies.
Below are links to some recent articles about rare earths. Most of the coverage has been percolating off the front pages, confined to business sections. But I think it’s a much bigger story, deserving a wider audience. Some of the reports below include interviews with Chinese officials and villagers, suggesting that access to a variety of sources should be possible.
[Numerous links appended]