Rare Earth Elements (REE) - Dirty, dangerous and destructive

Rare Earth Elements (REE) - Dirty, dangerous and destructive

Postby Oscar » Sun Nov 20, 2011 5:12 pm

Your Prius' Deepest, Darkest Secret

http://motherjones.com/blue-marble/2011 ... s-molycorp

By Kiera Butler  | Mon Nov. 14, 2011 2:30 AM PST

So you're considering buying a hybrid car. Or maybe you already have. Good for you! You're saving a bundle on gas and reducing your environmental footprint at the same time. But fuel isn't the only natural resource that your car requires. Its motor also contains a small amount of neodymium, one of 17 elements listed at the very bottom of the periodic table. Known as the rare earths, these minerals are key to all kinds of green technology: Neodymium magnets turn wind turbines. Cerium helps reduce tailpipe emissions. Yttrium can form phosphors that make light in LED displays and compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Hybrid and electric cars often contain as many as eight different rare earths.
And the stuff is good for more than just renewable energy technology. Walk down the aisles of your local Best Buy and you'll be hard-pressed to find something that doesn't contain at least one of the rare earths, from smartphones to laptop batteries to flat-screen TVs. They're also crucial for defense technology—radar and sonar systems, tank engines, and the navigation systems in smart bombs.
Given all this, it's not surprising that the rare-earths industry is booming. Demand for the elements has skyrocketed in the past few years, and a recent report predicted it to grow by 50 percent by 2017.
For the last few decades, China controlled the world's market for rare earths, producing about 97 percent of the global supply. But in late 2010, China cut its exports by 35 percent in order to keep the valuable metals for its own manufacturers. The prices of rare earths rose almost immediately. Fearing a shortage, US legislators sprang into action. This past April, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) introduced a bill that would kick-start a domestic rare-earths renaissance in the United States.
A few rare-earths mines are slated to open in the United States in the next few years, the most hyped of which is a facility called Mountain Pass in California's Mojave Desert. (It's actually been around off and on since the '50s, but a company called Molycorp has given it a major makeover.) When it's running at full capacity, Mountain Pass will be the largest rare-earths mine in the world, producing upwards of 40,000 tons of the stuff every year.
Which means Molycorp will also have to deal with a whole lot of waste.  Rare earths occur naturally with the radioactive elements thorium and uranium, which, if not stored securely, can leach into groundwater or escape into the air as dust. The refining process requires huge amounts of harsh acids, which also have to be disposed of safely. Molycorp claims that its new operations are leak-proof, but the company's ambitious plans have raised a few eyebrows among environmentalists, since the site has a history of spills.
But no matter how quickly new mines open, the United States won't be able to produce enough rare earths on its own—it's thought that North America contains only 15 percent of the world's supply. A recent Congressional Research Service report (PDF) recommended that the US seek reliable sources in other countries.
And that's where the real environmental problems begin. Mines in China have a particularly terrible record of contamination. Communities around a former rare-earths mining operation in Inner Mongolia, for example, blame hundreds of cases of cancer on leaked radioactive waste from the mine, and local people complain that their hair has gone white and their teeth have fallen out.
Right now, our most likely nondomestic rare-earths source is an Australian company called Lynas. Although the company will mine its materials in Australia, it hopes to build its refinery in Malaysia. This idea is controversial among Malaysians, to say the least. Some suspect that Lynas is choosing to refine in Malaysia in order to sidestep more stringent environmental regulations. "If they had built the Australia, it would have been a lot more expensive and difficult to permit than in Malaysia," says Jon Hykawy, an analyst with the Toronto-based brokerage Byron Markets, which specializes in rare earths. 
It's understandable that Malaysians would be wary of Lynas' plans, given the nation's history with rare earths. In the jungled interior of the country, a mine owned by Mitsubishi had a major spill in 1992. In the years since, nearby villagers have seen high rates of birth defects and eight cases of leukemia. And Mitsubishi is still dealing with the mess: The New York Times recently called it "the largest radiation cleanup yet in the rare earth industry."
This creates a real dilemma: What good is green technology if it's based on minerals whose extraction is so, well, ungreen? Most of the experts that I talked to agreed that the elements are just too useful to give up on. "We need this stuff," says Jim Kuipers, an independent mining consultant in Montana. "It's just a matter of figuring out how to do it right, and unfortunately, the mining industry doesn't have a strong history of doing this."
It'll help if citizens pressure companies to build clean mines and refineries. To that end, Malaysians have formed a group called Stop Lynas to protest the construction of the refinery and the sweet 12-year tax break that the Malaysian government plans to give it. Analyst Hykawy has recommended that his clients sell their stock in Lynas, in part because the controversy over the refinery means that the plant probably won't be up and running for months, maybe years.
And US companies like Molycorp can help by keeping their promise to pioneer cleaner techniques, which, if they become cheap enough, could be adopted by international mines in the years to come. "There is no reason that if these folks are willing to make this change they couldn't do it," Kuipers says. "I just hope they're really willing."
So is Molycorp as green as it claims? I visited the site to see for myself. More soon.
Kiera Butler is the articles editor at Mother Jones. For more of her stories, click here. Get Kiera Butler's RSS feed.

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Dirty, dangerous and destructive – the elements of a technology boom


The environmental and human costs of rare earth metals are high. Yet electronics are still built to be discarded, not recycled

SE Smith for This Ain't Livin', part of the Guardian Comment Network
guardian.co.uk, Monday 26 September 2011 14.00 BST

Rare earth metals are, if you're reading this, all around you. They're in your computer or tablet or mobile device. They're in the cellphone you may own, in the other technology you rely on for tasks of daily living. You can find them in the batteries of hybrid cars and in a myriad of other places. With the technology boom has come a spike in the usage of rare earth metals because they're critical for the construction of some many of the components we need to make technology work. They may have exotic names that are difficult to pronounce, but they're ubiquitous in daily life in developed communities.
Technology, we are often reminded, is the hope of the future, is the thing we are relying upon for great social and political change. There's been an especially big push in the use of green technology, and the applications of technology to environmental issues. Technology is touted as the solution to many of our problems, but it carries some problems of its own, some of which go ignored in the haste to promote technological innovation. With tech also comes, of course, jobs, which is a particularly critical issue in many regions of the world.
The darker shadows that underlie technology are growing with increasing reliance upon it; labour issues abound, for example, as numerous recent exposés on working conditions in manufacturing facilities illustrate. Export of labour to nations with inexpensive labour forces and minimal workplace regulation is very common, and consumers are often not aware, sometimes wilfully, of the costs behind cheap technology. Or not-so-cheap technology; Apple has a lengthy history of human rights abuses in their Chinese manufacturing plants, and their products are not made cheaper by the use of heavily exploited labour.
Environmental costs associated with rare earth metals are quite significant. First, you have to extract them. Then, you have to purify them. After they're distributed into technology, they often end up in landfills because it is less costly to simply toss equipment than it is to recycle it. A push in the direction of electronics recycling has come with its own set of environmental and social problems. And addressing these issues is not a simple process, especially when consumers do not play an active role. Consumers have immense power, when they choose to use it, over the companies they patronise and the kinds of goods they buy, but they need to exercise that power.
Mining is a dirty industry. Some of that dirt is unavoidable, because the industry has to tear into the earth to access useful metals and minerals. In other cases, it is avoidable, but only at great cost. Mining companies resist environmental reform because they want to make more money off their products. Some claim it is impossible to provide metals and minerals at the costs demanded by manufacturers, under pressure from consumers, and thus that they are forced to be dirty, because there is no other choice if they want to remain competitive in the industry. Attempts to commit to using clean metals require too much money, and consumers aren't willing to pay a premium.
Rare metal extraction involves substantial pollution in the mining, onsite processing, and refining phase. Mines create environmental degradation through topsoil loss, poorly controlled tailings ponds that leach into groundwater as well as lakes and rivers, roads slicing through habitat, and the use of large amounts of energy to extract and process the materials they uncover. Some rare earth metals require substantial processing, and that provides a number of opportunities for pollution at every step of the way.
The hard physical labour and exposure to pollution also make it hard to find workers. Mine locations are determined by deposits in the earth's crust, but workforces can be imported, if necessary, if a facility is located in a region where no locals are willing to work in a mine. Mining is hot, dirty work and it comes with few labour protections in some regions. Vast mines in regions like South Africa work people to excess, for very minimal pay, and often do not provide their workers with basic health and safety protections. Here in the United States, mining work continues to be unsafe despite supposedly tough labour laws, and it is among the most dangerous occupations.
After mining and processing, rare earth metals coast along as people use electronic equipment, until that equipment reaches the end of its usable life. Technology is increasingly designed to be disposable in nature. People do not fix their technology, they replace it. It is often cheaper to buy new than to repair, and people may be discouraged from seeking repairs; why would you want to replace that DVD drive when your processor is outdated? Your phone can't support the latest applications, so you might as well get rid of it if it's starting to fail, and replace it with a new one that will do the job more effectively.
What happens to discarded electronics? Some end up in landfills, where they create pollution problems of their own as their contents slowly leach out. Many landfills do not have liners equipped to handle things like rare earth metals, which means that surrounding communities get sick as toxins leach out of the garbage. Other consumers send their electronics to recyclers, many under the impression that they are doing a good thing, which it seems like they should be. Reduce, reuse, recycle is a common phrase for a reason, after all.
Some recycling facilities behave responsibly and ethically. They provide their workers with protection from the toxins they encounter on the job, they use pollution controls to limit spill into the surrounding community. Others, however, do not. Many of these unscrupulous operators are located in the developing world, where they can pay workers pennies for dirty, dangerous work with absolutely no protections. Abandoned equipment is left where it is while toxins and chemicals leach out, and people expose themselves to dangerous materials as they attempt to wrench anything of value from discarded electronics. The process inevitably creates pollution and makes people sick, but they have few options for treatment, let alone environmental protection.
Tighter regulations are one solution to the environmental costs of the tech boom. So are changes to the way people think about and interact with technology. Repair, rather than replacement, should be the order of the day. Ethically sourced supplies should be made more available, and the industry should be subject to more intense oversight. Companies that outsource or import labour to exploit people should be publicly shamed for what they do, whether that labour is in mines or recycling centres.

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The rise of rare earth elements


Demand for REEs can only increase as cars, computers, mobile phones and other electronic equipment become more advanced

Alok Jha guardian.co.uk, Monday 25 October 2010 20.58 BST

The "rare earth elements" are a group of 17 naturally occurring metallic elements used in small amounts in everything from high-powered magnets to batteries and electronic circuits. The materials (including scandium, yttrium and a group of elements called the lanthanides) have specific chemical and physical properties that make them useful in improving the performance of computer hard drives and catalytic converters, mobile phones, hi-tech televisions, sunglasses and lasers.
As technology advances, so the demand for the metals rises; in the past decade, their use has doubled. There are several kilograms of such elements in typical hybrid petrol-electric cars made by Toyota and Honda, a market that will expand in coming years.
Despite their name, rare earth elements are not actually all that rare. In a report on the elements published this year, the British Geological Survey put their natural abundance on the same level as copper or lead.
China has a near-monopoly on mining the elements. According to the geological survey China has 37% of the world's estimated reserves, about 36m tonnes, but controls more than 97% of production. The former Soviet bloc has around 19m tonnes and the US 13m, with other large deposits held by Australia, India, Brazil and Malaysia. The Royal Society of Chemistry is raising awareness of declining mineral resources, making conservation of rare earth and other elements a priority for 2011.
The US House of Representatives is also worried about security of supply and is considering legislation to try to end America's dependence on Chinese imports. The Mountain Pass mine in California, shut down in 2002 because of environmental and cost issues, is now to be reopened, along with potential mines at Bear Lodge in Wyoming and Bokan Mountain in Alaska..
Other sources, untapped as yet, include Greenland. Estimates suggest the land mass could meet 25% of global demand for REEs. South Africa also has potential for rich REE deposits, as do Malawi, Madagascar and Kenya.

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Chinese moves to limit mineral supplies sparks struggle over rare earths


• China produces 97% of the world's supply of rare earths
• China says exports quota is cut by 72% to ensure sustainability

Tania Branigan in Beijing guardian.co.uk, Monday 25 October 2010 21.00 BST

The price of crucial minerals used in everything from smart phones to wind turbines and radar systems – and the shares of companies seeking to produce them – are soaring after Beijing slashed global supplies.
China produces as much as 97% of the world's supply of so-called rare earth elements, but has drastically cut back exports, to the concern of foreign businesses and governments.
The move has seen prices rise as much as nine-fold in a few months and given new impetus to mining firms across the world that have long been seeking to develop deposits. But analysts warn that stocks in such firms are reaching unrealistic highs in an investment surge which some compare to the dotcom bubble.
Despite their collective name, the 17 elements are not rare. According to the US geological survey, China has only about a third of the deposits and for many years a US mine run by Molycorp was the main global supplier.
But the minerals are expensive to extract and process and China's expansion into the market saw prices plummet. Analysts say its labour costs are kept low and looser environmental laws, and the fact that the main deposit at Baotou in Inner Mongolia is also an iron ore mine, that keeps overall processing costs down.
Now Molycorp is looking to reopen its Mountain Pass mine in California, which closed in 2002, and a host of other firms are attempting to develop deposits.
Although China began tightening export quotas some time ago, the industry was shocked when it slashed the export quota for the second half of 2010 by 72% year-on-year. Beijing said it wanted to ensure sustainability and curb environmental damage.
The government has also consolidated the industry, closing smaller mines and seeking to create stronger, more efficient enterprises.
But the overseas facilities now under development are well over a year away from production, at best.
"It's all down the road – and everyone is worried about today and tomorrow," said Suzanne Cammell of Metal-Pages.
"If you don't get rare earths, you can't produce anything; that's why there's a panic."
In early July, cerium oxide, used in the manufacture of ceramics and photosensitive glass, was $6-7 a kilo, she said. Later that month the price started to leap; now it is $36-38. Samarium, used in magnets for items such as headphones and carbon arc lights for the film industry, cost $4.25-$4.75; now it is $34-35.
The soaring prices produced dramatic gains for related stocks. The Financial Times reported that an index of shares in rare earth companies, from research firm Kaiser Bottom-Fish Online, has increased 12-fold in less than two years and by more than a third in the last month.
It pointed out that the combined market capitalisation of six junior mining firms had reached almost $7bn (£4.5bn) although they are not yet mining rare earths and the market is worth about $2bn annually.
"It is a bubble. There is no doubt about that," said Gareth Hatch, co-founder of Technology Metals Research.
But he said usage was increasing fast because rare earths are now used in so many consumer goods and because of the growing demand for such items in emerging economies.
They are also vital for green technology developments: one wind turbine generating 3 megawatts of power might require 600kg of rare earths for its magnets, he said.
Last year, global production stood at 124,000 tonnes. Lynas, which is developing a major rare earths project in Australia, reported that demand would increase by an average of 9% a year until 2014, but that supply would only grow to 170,000 tonnes, leaving a shortfall of about 20,000 tonnes. The Chinese Rare Earths Industry Association has predicted demand will rise by almost two-thirds within five years.
China will use an increasing amount of its production itself. Some also fear Beijing may use quotas to promote domestic manufacturing because export controls apply solely to the raw materials, not alloys or components.
That makes foreign governments anxious, particularly following reports that China has cut some shipments to Japan.
On Sunday, the Japanese trade minister Akihiro Ohata urged China to begin shipping rare earths again, saying the Chinese vice minister of commerce had told him customs had tightened checks on rare earth exports to all destinations. China has denied claims that it is punishing Japan over a maritime dispute and earlier this month premier Wen Jiabao insisted: "China is not using rare earths as a bargaining chip."
In a statement last week the commerce ministry denied reports it might cut the export quota for 30% year-on-year and said China would continue to supply rare earths to the world.
"At the same time, to protect usable resources and sustainable development, China will also continue to impose restrictive measures on exploration, production and import and export," it added.
For all the industry's hype, said Hatch, there is an underlying problem.
"Despite the relatively low value of these materials, the technologies enabled by rare earths and components that contain rare earths run into the trillions of dollars," he said.
"There is certainly going to be an issue in the next zero-to-three years where there will be a gap between material available from China and actual demand outside."
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