Science Matters: The Case of Rare Earth Elements

Stewards Group: You are a Chemist

Your Background and Biography

When you were young, you never stopped asking questions. Your curiosity about the world of compounds, elements, and their interactions led you to pursue an academic career in chemistry. After completing your PhD at the University of Colorado, Boulder, you were offered a position as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

You have built your research around the principles of “green chemistry,” a set of ideas that aim to make chemistry less harmful to the environment, safer for people, and more energy efficient. You believe that expertise in chemistry can—and should—be used to make the world a better place.

You are one of the leaders in the United States in applying green chemistry to the production and manufacture of rare earth elements. You and the researchers in your lab have focused particularly on the challenges of separating rare earth elements from each other. Current separation processes are energy intensive and polluting. You want to develop new processes that would make it easier to recover and reuse rare earth metals from recycled products, such as old cell phones and computer hard drives. You have successfully developed greener separation processes, but their current costs make the metals produced too expensive when compared with rare earths produced by conventional methods.

The effort to create a Sustainability Seal appeals to you because you know about the harms caused by past rare earth production. You also know that manufacturers and consumers probably will have to pay a bit more for sustainably produced rare earth metals. That’s why you have joined this effort—to help build a market for greener rare earths.

In negotiations you hope to see a Sustainability Seal that encourages current recycling efforts and further research into new recycling methods and that uses a scientific approach to mitigate damages associated with rare earth production.

Your Role

Your goal is to write a statement of guiding values that will set the standards for sustainable practices within the rare earth elements industry. Learn as much as possible from the experts to ensure you make the right decision. During this hearing you should do the following:

  • Keep an open mind. Allow yourself to be persuaded by well-reasoned arguments and convincing evidence.

  • Find out as much as possible about the issues so you can carefully evaluate the arguments presented. Consider what is in the best interest of the environment and our future.

  • Facilitate discussion and cooperation within and among the groups. Your goal is to implement the best, most effective set of Sustainability Seal guiding values possible, which will require compromise between groups.

Your Assignment

You will become the expert on the Producers Group and report back to your fellow Stewards with an evaluation of the group’s position and arguments. Engage in the following activities as you conduct your research:

  • Attend the meetings of the Producers Group to learn more about its arguments and to plan for the hearing. Remember that you are an observer, so you should not participate in discussion.

  • Write two questions you would like to ask the Producers Group during the hearing.

  • Write a one-page analysis of the Producers Group’s main arguments and positions. What are its main concerns? Which of its arguments do you find convincing? Which are unconvincing? Why?


Group Sources

Individual Sources

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