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OM in the News: China’s Toxic Legacy From Its Rare Earths

November 9, 2013
A rare earth ingot is prized for its magnetic properties, but refining is a dirty process

A rare earth ingot is prized for its magnetic properties, but refining is a dirty process

Manufacturers of high tech products rely on a steady stream of 17 “rare earth” metals to make their goods. These lightweight, malleable minerals are essential to hybrid cars, cell phones, and disk drives. Rare earths had skyrocketed in price in the past a few years ago as China, the world’s dominant producer, unilaterally imposed taxes and annual tonnage limits on its exports. Lanthanum, for example, jumped from $4.5/lb to $73/lb. Neodymium surged from $9/lb to $207/lb and dysprosium from $243/lb to $1,135/lb.

But the Chinese export restrictions have become less important recently for two reasons, reports The New York Times (Oct.23, 2013). Alternative rare earth mines have gone into production in the US and Australia, reducing China’s share of global production to 85%, from 95% three years ago. And companies have become much more efficient about economizing on rare earths, especially the costliest ones, such as heavy rare earths like dysprosium.  The global oil industry has similarly begun using less lanthanum during oil refining. Only 1.5% of the latest catalyst formulations for oil refining are now lanthanum, down from 4-5% three years ago.

Communities scattered across China face heavy environmental damage that accumulated through 2 decades of unregulated rare earth mining and refining. China’s recent white paper detailed environmental harm caused by the industry, and was used to try to justify the need for export restrictions. “Excessive rare earth mining has resulted in landslides, clogged rivers, environmental pollution emergencies and even major accidents and disasters, causing great damage to people’s safety and health and the ecological environment,” said the government report. Whole villages in Inner Mongolia have been evacuated and resettled elsewhere after reports of high cancer rates associated with the refineries there. A hazardous stew of toxic chemicals and low-level radioactive waste from refineries has been dumped into the world’s largest tailings pond, which covers 4 square miles near the Yellow River.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why are rare earths important in manufacturing?

2. Provide examples of products (not mentioned in the article) and their specific rare earths.

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