Science Matters: The Case of Rare Earth Elements



Wind turbines and a herd of cattle

Dozens of wind turbines and a herd of cattle populate an open expanse in the Spanish province of Seville.

Johanna Montoya

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 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:

  1. 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?

  2. 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?

  3. 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?

  4. 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?

  5. Do the problems caused by our use of rare earth elements outweigh the benefits that they provide?

View transcript >>

Manufacturer Roles

Vice President for Environmental and Social Initiatives at a Consumer Electronics Manufacturer

An executive at a multinational corporation that is reliant on rare earths and interested in using the company’s purchases to improve the environment and society.

Chief Executive Officer of a Wind Turbine Manufacturer

The leader of a European sustainable energy company interested in stabilizing the supply of rare earths for the future of global energy.

Vice President of a Defense Contractor

The vice president of a weapons-making company that regularly contracts with the U.S. government and is mainly concerned about creating and sustaining a domestic supply of rare earth elements.

Chief Sustainability Officer for a Major Automaker

An executive at a Japanese electric car manufacturer who is concerned about pollution caused by rare earth mining.

Owner of a Catalytic Converters Company

A Canadian business owner who is seeking to make auto parts from ethically sourced rare earth metals.

Consultant to Medical Device Makers

A researcher based in Brazil who consults with companies about the medical applications of rare earth elements and who is interested in ensuring a reliable supply of rare earth elements for medical applications.

Video Transcript

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