Science Matters: The Case of Rare Earth Elements


Part of the Institute’s Science Matters series, The Case of Rare Earth Elements is a role-playing game in which students debate the positive and negative perspectives of rare earth elements from all sides, from producers and activists to manufacturers and consumers.

Rare earth elements are all around us. They are part of the foundation on which our modern society is built. They power our phones, our cars, and scores of other technologies. Yet the mining and distribution of these elements have created challenges—environmental pollution, geopolitical monopolies, and future sustainability—that must be addressed.

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The Scenario

You have been invited to participate in an international Sustainability Summit convened to develop guidelines for a rare earth elements Sustainability Seal. During this Summit you will assume a role associated with the rare earths industry and will explore the many benefits and challenges surrounding the use of, and our dependency on, rare earth elements. In groups you will argue for your position on rare earth elements and propose additions and changes to the Sustainability Seal guidelines. The goal of the Sustainability Seal is to define practical and manageable criteria to address the issues associated with rare earth element production and trade while also accounting for the vital role these elements play in modern-day society. The Stewards will choose the set of guidelines that best addresses the underlying issues within the rare earth elements industry.


Magnifying glass over rare earth element

Rare earth elements are widespread and indispensable components in many modern technologies.

Photo by JOKER/Alexander Stein/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Getting Started

1. Get the Facts

Prepare for your debate by watching the video in the Overview section above and reviewing the background materials listed below. They will help you understand the science and the history of rare earth elements, including their production, commercial use, and trade and the associated environmental concerns.

2. Make the Case

Select your group from the menu above to access resources specific to your group and to learn about the other members of your group. Review the proposed Sustainability Seal Guiding Values with a focus on the collective needs and goals of your assigned group. How will you argue for your position? What recommended additions or changes will you propose?

Teacher Resources

  • Instructor Manual for Science Matters: The Case of Rare Earth Elements (download PDF)

Student Resources

Video Transcript

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