USING EARTH’S NATURAL RESOURCES
Many Christmas wish lists this year include new cell phones or other personal electronics. Twenty years ago there were few cell phones in use but in the last twenty years the number has risen to over 5 billion in use today. The use of computers and other personal electronics has grown almost as fast as cell phones.
Items we use every day, such as computer memory, DVD’s, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, car catalytic converters, magnets, flat screen televisions, electric cars, compact fluorescent light bulbs, fiber optic cable, and more use natural resources known as “rare earth”. The term rare earth refers to 17 mineral elements with similar chemical properties.
Rare earth elements are not as “rare” as the name implies. They are metals not dirt. They are known as rare because they are so difficult to mine. These elements are not found in high enough concentrations for economical extraction. Presently, of 124,000 metric tons produced in 7 countries around the world, China produces 120,000 metric tons – about 95 percent. The United States produces an “insignificant” amount but is reported to have 13 percent of the world’s reserves; China has 36 percent.
Mining results in some environmental damage beginning with strip mining. Large amounts of earth must be removed and then the rare elements sorted out – usually 8 percent or less of the total volume. The elements are processed using chemicals leaving behind waste materials that are hazardous. As “green” as China is attempting to become, the mining of rare earth in China leaves behind contamination of soil and water. In the United States the reuse of water and salts and the use of secured disposal areas do more to protect the environment.
Most of one rare earth element, scandium, used in the United States goes into aluminum-alloy baseball bats and other sports equipment. Rechargeable batteries are increasing in demand and are made with rare earth compounds. Several pounds of rare earth compounds are used in batteries that power electric vehicles and hybrid-electric vehicles. Rare earth compounds make the most powerful magnets in the world and are found in computers and a wide array of consumer, commercial, and military products.
Other substances can be substituted for rare earth elements in their most important uses; however, these substitutes are usually less effective and costly. As we keep bringing new products dependent on rare earth into our lives, we can support research into cheaper, greener processes. Dollars spent on research are always gifts for our future.
Della Moen, Earth Team Volunteer, NRCS/Stephenson Soil and Water Conservation District, an equal opportunity provider and employer, 12/12/12 (for publication on 12/15/12 in the Journal Standard, Freeport, Illinois) Della can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org