Written by R.E. Lord

Rare Earth MetalsRare earth metals (or minerals) are used in a variety of materials we use everyday such as cell phones and laptops, and they are also an important part of many hybrid cars.  In fact, in a hybrid such as the Toyota Prius there are several pounds of rare earth minerals in parts such as the battery electrode as well as the magnets within the electric motor.

Are Rare Earth Metals Really Rare?

Interestingly enough, these "rare" earth metals are not particularly all that rare. That is, there are relatively high concentrations of them found in the earth's crust around the world, but it is not generally commercially viable to mine them. At this point, they are for the most part only mined in China which contributes about 95% of the world's supply of rare earth metals (though it only has about 37% of the world's proven resources).

China's control of the world's rare earth elements is interesting, and perhaps troubling, for quite a few reasons. Most notably the Chinese government has recently begun to limit the export of rare earth metals, causing some concern that this commodity may be in even greater demand moving forward. The Chinese deny a flat out embargo but contend that the country "will continue to export rare earth to the world, and at the same time, in order to conserve exhaustible resources and maintain sustainable development, China will also continue imposing relevant restrictions on the mining, manufacture and export of rare earths." The possibility that there may be further embargoes causing worldwide shortages of the important elements used in so many renewable energy products is trouble for their advocates.

The Environmental Hazards of Mining Rare Earth Metals

Rare Earth Mineral Mine

The use of rare earth metals in hybrid vehicles, as well as other renewable resources like solar panels and wind turbines, also causes some concern amongst environmentalists because the mining and refining of these metals can cause serious environmental damage. In addition to the possibility of introducing radioactive tailings, the refining of rare earth minerals requires the use of toxic acids.

Due to the possibility of future shortages of rare earth metals, as well as to avoid the environmental concerns of obtaining these minerals, there is a push for new sources of these commodities. Of course, many people believe we should look for alternative resources to produce products that currently use the metals, and this avenue is certainly being pursued.  Nissan, for example, claims that there are no rare earth metals used in the production of its electric car, the Nissan Leaf.

Viable alternatives aside, there may be other means to procur rare earth metals than either importing them from China. There are currently efforts underway in Australia, South Africa, Canada and the U.S. to open new mines. The Mountain Pass mine in California is set to begin operations in 2012. There are, however, a number of difficulties in opening up such large endeavors and getting them going quickly enough to begin meeting the world's ever-increasing demand.

Recycling Rare Earth Metals and Urban Mining

Another option that is increasingly being explored is to pull the rare earth metals from existing products that have met the end of their usable lives such as old cell phones, laptops and batteries. This process is also referred to as "urban mining" and the process is already having some success in Japan and is also being attempted in Europe. The problem in this case, despite the seemingly endless supply of used and discarded electronic equipment, is pulling the trace amounts of rare earth materials out of the recycled product.  Urban mining is still in its infancy and recycling rare earths is just beginning, but if China continues to limit exports and the demand for such material increases we should see improved efforts to find viable solutions.