The Case of Rare Earth Elements: Resources & Readings


Why Are Rare Earth Elements Important for Our Present and Our Future?

Adam Schwartz (Director, Ames Laboratory):
Now that’s a great question. Rare earths are truly an enabler of much of the modern society, modern technology that we have today. For example, 30 years ago cell phones had maybe 30 elements. Twenty years ago cell phones had maybe 30 elements in it. Today upwards of 70 elements are used within a modern mobile phone. The reason is rare earths have remarkable electronic properties. As a result of sitting so far down on the periodic table, they have another shell of electrons, those 4F electrons, and those 4F electrons enable amazing electrical properties, optical properties, and in particular magnetic properties.

Julie Klinger (Associate Director, Land Use and Livelihoods Initiative, Global Development Policy Center): 
Everything that you can think of that makes our society function requires rare earth elements—just about. Everything from your smartphone to your laptop to, you know, various technological components to produce any kind of energy that we use. Whether we’re talking fossil fuels or nuclear or wind or solar, we require rare earth elements. And we also rely on rare earth elements for some of our most sophisticated medical technologies. So the magnets in MRI machines, for example, or the components for various bone replacements or tooth implants, or rare earths are even an ingredient in certain chemotherapy drugs. If you look around, you’ll find rare earths in just about anything. So the thing about rare earths is that no matter what kind of society we are interested in developing, whether it’s the greenest and greatest or something otherwise, we need them. And so that means it’s really important how and where we mine these things.

Eric Schelter (Director, Center for the Sustainable Separations of Metals): 
We’re all aware of fair-trade coffee, which is involved with making sure that the farmers who produced the coffee have a living wage and are producing the coffee in a sustainable way. And we’ve probably also heard of things like blood diamonds where different materials like diamonds can help to fuel and sustain conflict in different parts of the world. And so essential critical metals are also a part of this same kind of set of supply-chain issues. And so if people become informed, then they can sort of challenge technology companies and say, we’re not going to continue to support supply chains that contribute to conflict and that contribute massive amounts of pollution. And therefore we would like to demand or we would like to have technology that is certified to be from sustainable sources. And so that could be involving recycling or just recycling of primary materials, but also recycling components of the devices themselves. So I think it’s up to consumers to insist that this is what we want, and then technology companies will have to respond. And one of the ways that they’ll respond is through the development of new processes that can produce these materials in a sustainable and even ethical way.

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: “Algo Rythm Natural” by Podington Bear
(c) 2020 Science History Institute

Assigned Readings & Other Sources

  • Abrahams, David S. The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015. (Read pp. 38–46 on the Araxá Mine and CBMM.) (Producers)
  • PBS. “Rare Earth Elements.” In NOVA: Hunting the Elements. Video, April 4, 2012. (The relevant section is from 1:25:25 to 1:32:30, unless you want to learn how rare earths might be used as a shark repellent, in which case watch until 1:39:35.) (Consumers)


Further Reading: Print & Ebooks

  • Abrahams, David S. The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.
  • Kalantzakos, Sophia. China and the Geopolitics of Rare Earths. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Veronese, Keith. Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 2015.


    Copy the above HTML to republish this content. We have formatted the material to follow our guidelines, which include our credit requirements. Please review our full list of guidelines for more information. By republishing this content, you agree to our republication requirements.