Science Matters: The Case of Rare Earth Elements

Consumers Case Study

Can Consumer Choices Make Rare Earth Production More Sustainable?

Introduction

Today the rare earth elements are used in many products that benefit consumers (people or organizations that buy manufactured products). The rare earths are often an “invisible” ingredient in such products, however, and manufacturers rarely advertise which metals they use in production. As a consequence many consumers are not aware of how their purchases are connected to the rare earth industry.

Some activists hope to change this. They want consumers to better understand how buying certain products is connected to negative environmental impacts, low wages, and unsafe conditions for people living and working in distant countries. They want consumers to see their purchasing choices as political acts. By helping people become “ethical consumers,” these activists hope to use the power of markets to protect the environment and ensure that workers get a fair share of the benefits of production.

One strategy for encouraging ethical consumption is certification, a kind of “seal of approval” for products made in ways that are more environmentally sustainable or that treat workers more fairly.

History of Consumer Products with Rare Earth Elements

Cigarette spark lighters were the first significant consumer product to use rare earth elements. In the early 1900s chemist Carl Auer von Welsbach developed metal alloys he named “ferrocerium” and “mischmetal” that combined iron with various rare earth elements. These alloys sparked with intense heat when struck, and the sparks then ignited a liquid fuel such as kerosene.

More products made with rare earths arrived in American living rooms and garages in the decades after World War II. Nickel–metal hydride (NiMH) batteries became common in the 1980s. Lanthanum and neodymium helped these rechargeable batteries hold a lot of electricity for their volume. Small NiMH batteries powered video cameras and cordless tools in the late 1980s, while banks of larger batteries made possible gasoline-electric hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius, introduced in 2001.

The U.S. Department of Defense has also been a major consumer of products made with rare earths. Many kinds of military equipment use rare earth elements, including lasers, radars, fighter planes, and night-vision goggles. The Department of Defense buys equipment and weapons systems from private manufacturers that often sell only to a few other military forces around the world. Historically, the defense department has been far more concerned about the performance and capability of the equipment it buys than the price. U.S. law also requires that the nation’s weapons not depend on parts produced by potential enemies. In case of a national emergency the Defense Logistics Agency maintains a national reserve of strategic materials. In 2020, for instance, it planned to buy 100 metric tons of rare earth magnet feedstock; 4,100 metric tons of lanthanum; and 900 metric tons of cerium.

Rare earths became pervasive through their use in consumer electronics products. The introduction of europium phosphors to television screens in the mid-1960s made the picture on color TVs much brighter. In the early 1980s researchers at General Motors created an exceptionally strong permanent magnet using an alloy of neodymium-iron-boron. This new magnet enabled electrical motors to become smaller while using less energy. Then the magnets were put to work spinning the hard-disk drives of increasingly common desktop computers. In 1984 about 8% of U.S. households had a computer, but by 2000 more than 50% did.

The release of the first iPhone in 2007 showed how far advances in rare earth metallurgy and applications had developed. Neodymium magnets power the vibrating motor and the speakers in earbuds. Lanthanum reduces distortion in the tiny glass camera lens. Yttrium and erbium make bright colors in an energy-efficient screen. Consumer electronics account for a relatively small amount of global rare earth use, but many articles about the rare earths emphasize smartphones because they are so familiar to readers.
 

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The rare earth elements also make consumer items more energy efficient. Compact fluorescent lights and LED light bulbs, which incorporate the rare earth elements yttrium and europium, can reduce electricity use by 80% compared with traditional incandescent lights. Similarly, electric cars using motors made with neodymium and dysprosium use less energy than internal combustion engine vehicles fueled by gasoline. Cars can also be powered by electricity generated by such renewable sources as wind and solar that do not contribute to climate change. Some wind turbines do require rare earths in their manufacture.

The rare earth elements are a tricky subject for consumers worried about the environment. While rare earth metals increase energy efficiency, the environmental effects of mining and separating them complicate the question of how much these newer technologies benefit the environment and human health. As a result activist groups seeking to protect workers and the environment have tried to organize consumers to demand more ethically made products.

Political Consumption

Consumers are ethically implicated in how products are made because they provide the money that keeps production going while also benefiting from the products they buy. But individual consumers do not always understand the connection between consumption and politics. Activist groups advocating for change have often played a powerful role in showing consumers how their purchases affect the world. Called “political consumption,” this practice refers to deciding which products to purchase based on political and ethical considerations that might bring about desirable changes.

During the second half of the 1900s many groups found ways to use political consumption to support social and political change. During the late 1960s the United Farm Workers, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, used a consumer boycott of California grapes to secure better pay and safer working conditions for the largely Hispanic and Filipino workers who picked fruit. In the later 1970s activists organized a boycott of the multinational food manufacturer Nestlé to protest its aggressive marketing of baby formula to mothers in impoverished countries. According to activists some mothers, not understanding that overdilution was an issue, mixed in extra water to make enough formula for two children instead of one, leading to infant deaths through malnutrition. During the 1980s South African human rights activists and their international allies called on the world to boycott and divest from (stop investing in) companies that did business with the government of South Africa, which enforced the racist “apartheid” laws that oppressed black citizens.

Environmental activists adopted similar tactics to address environmental problems around the world. One example is the creation of the “Dolphin Safe” label and new regulations for tuna products. Beginning in the 1950s fish harvesters off the coasts of Central and South America followed pods of dolphins to find commercially valuable tuna. Millions of dolphins drowned in tuna nets. During the 1980s environmental activist groups, including the Earth Island Institute, began publicizing this practice, using videos of dolphins struggling against nets to galvanize public opinion in the United States. International agreements about fishing gave the U.S. Department of Commerce a degree of regulatory authority over tuna caught for sale in the United States. Consumer boycotts led well-known commercial brands to work with activists and the U.S. Department of Commerce to develop a solution. Fish harvesters were required to use nets that had “escape hatches” for dolphins. By 1990 consumers could look for a new label to know the tuna fish in a particular can was caught in “Dolphin Safe” ways.

Climate-change activists returned to the tactic of financial divestment during the latter half of the 2010s. Organizations such as 350.org argued that it was immoral to support companies that were destabilizing the climate. They initially sought to persuade religious organizations and universities to sell off (divest) their stock-market shares in all fossil fuel–based companies. By 2019 fossil-fuel divestment had spread, and a total of more than $11 trillion globally was being managed by organizations committed to divesting from fossil fuels, including many public pension programs and philanthropic foundations.

Activists also applied the tools of political consumption to mineral products. During the late 1990s the sale of diamonds mined in parts of central and southern Africa funded civil wars and insurgencies that killed millions of people. Human rights groups such as Global Witness described these gems as “blood diamonds” and educated western consumers about their purchase, explaining how buying an engagement ring could contribute to deaths on the other side of the planet. Concern about blood diamonds and similar “conflict minerals” helped develop alternative sources in countries such as Canada. The bad publicity and threat to sales also compelled De Beers, the dominant firm in diamond production at the time, to change its purchasing practices. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which came into effect in 2003 with the assistance of the United Nations, established a process to track the sale of rough diamonds, with governments certifying that sales would not support a rebellion. 

A notable approach to creating ethical electronics emerged out of a consumer-awareness campaign about conflict minerals used in cell phones. In 2013 Dutch activists who had been running a public-awareness campaign about the conflict mineral cobalt decided to try to produce a smartphone that was free of conflict minerals and manufactured by fairly paid workers. The “Fairphone” company sought to make the supply chain transparent and help develop a market for products that put ethical values first. The phone’s components are designed to be repairable and modular, so they can be upgraded without buying a whole new phone. As of 2019 more than 100,000 Fairphones were in use, mostly in Europe.

Commodity Certification Systems

The Dolphin Safe label and the Kimberley process are examples of commodity certification systems. In these systems producers agree to follow a set of standards in making their products. Consumers look for special labels on products and choose to buy (and often pay more for) products that have been certified to meet ethical or sustainable production standards. Many American consumers may be familiar with the “fair trade” certification for coffee and chocolate.

One of the most influential commodity certification systems is run by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). In 1993 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recognized that international agreements and national-level policies were not doing enough to protect the world’s tropical forests, including the plants, animals, and people who lived in them. The WWF convened a council of “stakeholders”—including companies that made products from wood, advocates for environmental conservation, and representatives of indigenous peoples affected by forestry—to establish standards for sustainable practices for harvesting wood and producing paper products. The FSC issues a seal of approval to products that can be certified to meet its standards. By 2017 about 489 million acres of forest across 84 countries were being managed according to FSC standards. There are critics of the system, however, who point out that ecologically valuable forests are sometimes clear-cut by companies that hold FSC certifications, and the FSC has been slow to cut ties with companies caught selling illegally harvested wood. While the FSC seal has raised consumer awareness about ethical forestry, it has been much more widely adopted in developed, northern countries than in the countries with tropical forests it was originally intended to protect.

Conclusion

While using rare earth elements has made products for consumers better, mining and separating the rare earths have also poisoned workers and damaged landscapes.

Metal alloys featuring the rare earth elements were one of many new materials developed in the 20th century. Unlike such materials as plastic or nylon, the rare earth metals are not visible to most consumers. Advertisements for products that contain these elements tend to celebrate the product’s capabilities without really explaining how those effects are achieved. As a result many consumers who use products containing rare earth elements do not know where or how the rare earths are produced, or even that they are used in the products at all.

Environmental and social activists have tried to reveal the politics behind products by teaching consumers to see how these negative impacts are connected to their buying choices. Products such as the Fairphone and commodity certification systems such as the Forest Stewardship Council seek to use the market power of consumers to push raw material producers and product manufacturers to operate in more ethical and environmentally sustainable ways. Consumer-focused reform efforts are one tool that consumers as well as activists can use as they seek to make production more ethical and sustainable.

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Video Transcript

10 Ways the Rare Earth Elements Make Life Better

Voiceover: How much do you know about rare earth elements, the 17 metals found across the bottom of the periodic table? You may know more than you think you do. And chances are you interact with them almost every day. Here are 10 ways:

Permanent magnets made with neodymium and dysprosium make electrical generators more compact and require less maintenance. They’re useful for wind turbines mounted in the ocean.

The nickel-metal hydride batteries in hybrid and electric cars get some of their power and rechargeability from a combination of lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, and praseodymium.

A decade ago half of all yttrium, europium, and terbium production went into compact fluorescent bulbs. Today’s LEDs still use yttrium and europium, but a lot less to produce the same amount of light.

Since the 1980s cerium has been used in catalytic converters to reduce the carbon monoxide in car exhaust.

Adding lanthanum to glass reduces distortion. It’s in your cell phone’s camera lens helping you snap that perfect selfie.

Drinking a solution of gadolinium increases the contrast of an MRI image.

Promethium is the only rare earth element that’s radioactive. It’s beta emissions are used to precisely measure the thickness of thin coatings like metal, plastic, or paint.

Scandium is mixed with aluminum in baseball bats, golf clubs, and tent poles. Oh and also in the MiG 29 fighter plane.

Is your ruby a fake? We won’t tell. Holmium is used to color crystals and glass. It turns cubic zirconium red.

But even cooler is holmium’s potential use in quantum computing. Researches have used holmium to store a bit of data in a single atom.

So how many times have you interacted with rare earth elements this week?

Credits: Produced by the Science History Institute
Animation: Claud Li
Narration: Alexis Pedrick
Writing: Roger Turner
Audio: Mariel Carr, Rigoberto Hernandez