The Case of Rare Earth Elements: Manufacturers

You require rare earth elements in the manufacture of a variety of products, and although you prefer to source these elements responsibly, your main concern is the threat of restrictions that could adversely affect a stable, consistent supply. The Sustainability Seal should mandate responsible production and waste management, but more important, it should focus on production practices that will prevent dramatic supply shocks and cost increases.

Read the Statement of Guiding Values and your group’s Goals and Recommendations for the final Sustainability Seal, and use them to prepare answers to the following questions, which the Stewards will ask during the Summit:

  • The mining and production of rare earth elements can result in intense and long-lasting water and soil pollution, yet these elements are in high demand for countless modern technologies. Are there truly sustainable methods for mining and using rare earth elements? How can cleaner but more costly forms of production compete with cheaper mining operations and illegal smuggling? Who in the production cycle of rare earths should bear the burden of evaluating and minimizing environmental impact?
  • Great strides have been made in the effort to efficiently recycle rare earth elements, but the science behind these technologies is still being tested and existing methods are not widely implemented. Is it possible to prioritize recycling and reuse in the demand for rare earths? What is the most effective way to create incentives for recycling and reuse to reduce new production?
  • The goal of this Summit is to create a Sustainability Seal for the mining, production, and use of rare earth elements. What are the critical factors that must be addressed when discussing the sustainability of rare earths? What are the biggest obstacles to making rare earth elements a sustainable resource? What new problems might result from the creation of this seal?
  • What historical examples and evidence provide useful lessons about the successes or failures of addressing the impact and implications of our use of rare earth elements?
  • Do the problems caused by our use of rare earth elements outweigh the benefits that they provide?

How Are Rare Earth Elements Used in Green Technology?

Adam Schwartz (Director, Ames Laboratory): 
More widely than ever before. For example, wind turbines are probably the greatest example out there. Wind energy is taking a larger and larger share of United States and global energy production, and the reason is because it’s relatively straightforward, it is very much renewable, and does not have a significant impact on the environment. There are two main types of wind turbines. One type is called direct drive, and direct drive requires significant amounts of the rare earth elements, the rare earth magnets, neodymium-iron-boron. And those turbines are very efficient, and they are very, very reliable. The downside is they require a lot of that rare earth permanent magnet. The other type of wind turbine is gear driven, and gear driven requires less of those high-performance permanent magnets, but are also much less reliable. So as research continues and the world develops high-performing permanent magnets that require less or no rare earth elements, that will further accelerate the adoption of renewable energy. 

For the energy storage side there is still an open question as to what sort of energy storage is going to be dominant. There’s still research into fuel cells, but most of the research is currently going to—most of the research and most of the application is in batteries: lithium ion versus metal hydride, nickel–metal hydride. And for the nickel–metal hydride batteries, lanthanum is the element of choice. So as the competition between lithium ion, nickel–metal hydride, other types of batteries continues to move forward, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if small quantities of rare earth elements play a big role in electric mobility and electric vehicles going forward.

Credits: The Rare Earth Elements Project is made possible by a generous grant from Roy Eddleman, founder of Spectrum LifeSciences.
Illustrations and animations: Claud Li
Music: “Crafty” by Podington Bear
(c) 2020 Science History Institute

Manufacturer Roles

Goals & Recommendations

Recommendations for the Ethical Production of Rare Earth Elements

Prepared in Advance of the Summit

Main Concerns of the Manufacturers Group:

  • Maintaining a consistent supply of rare earths is essential for manufacturing many valuable products. Producing rare earths in multiple countries in different parts of the world would make the supply chain more stable.
  • While current prices for rare earth metals are relatively low, prices have spiked in the past when supplies of metals seemed to be unstable. Manufacturers should weigh the option of paying more now to ensure stable prices over the longer term.
  • Recycling could be an ethical source of rare earth metals in the future. Manufacturers need help from activists, consumers, and producers to make recycling viable and cost-effective.
  • Transparency about the mining and production process of rare earth elements should be ensured to help manufacturers know they are buying metals that have been legally mined and produced in ethical ways.
  • Activists and consumers are becoming more aware of the harms that have been caused by rare earth metal production. Protests and boycotts centered on rare earth production could hurt manufacturers. A credible Sustainability Seal could help show that manufacturers are working to make things better.

Recommendations Based on Manufacturers Group Concerns:

  • Producers, manufacturers, consumers, and activists should work together to support establishing new sources of rare earth production in different parts of the world. Production in more countries means supplies are less vulnerable to disruption.
  • Producers and manufacturers should follow all laws in the countries where they operate.
  • Programs to gather discarded consumer products and recover rare earth elements from waste should be supported so that manufacturers have the option to buy recycled rare earth metals.
  • Transparency must be enforced. Producers must track where and how rare earth metals are mined and separated. The chain of custody must be documented and available for manufacturers to see before they buy raw materials.
  • Reducing pollution is important but so is keeping the cost of raw materials reasonable. Producers should use the best technologies practicable to control waste.


Assigned Readings & Other Sources


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