The Upside and Downside to Rare Earth Metals Shortages

The universal need for critical minerals may promote a more peaceful planet

Loading the podcast player...

Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology."

In the past year or so, the world has woken up to the fact that China has a near-monopoly on the rare-earth-metal market. But as a recent report has made clear, the problem is even worse than we thought. To be sure, what we call rare earth metals aren't so rare—cerium, for example, is No. 25 on a list of the most abundant elements in the earth's crust. But it's hard to extract safely and cheaply, and it's needed in the manufacture of a variety of high-tech items, including flat-panel televisions and hard drives.

Laptops, cellphones, MP3 players, electric cars, wind turbines, photovoltaic cells—they all need hard-to-get metals and minerals. In fact, scientists are now warning us that if we're hoping for a robust clean-energy economy, we shouldn't be worried about just rare earths; we should be worried about almost a third of the periodic table.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, scientists presented a new report from the American Physical Society and the Material Research Society in which they lay out their concerns for these "energy critical elements." My guest today is Professor Thomas Graedel, one of the 14 authors of the report. Professor Graedel teaches geology and geophysics and chemical engineering at Yale University and is the director of Yale's Center for Industrial Ecology. Tom, welcome to the podcast.

Thomas Graedel: Thank you very much.

Steven Cherry: So, what are some of the elements we're talking about here and how are they different from rare earth metals?

Thomas Graedel: Among the elements we're talking about are selenium and tellurium that are used in photovoltaics, lithium in high performance batteries, platinum and palladium as fuel-cell catalysts, and rhenium in advanced turbine engines, to name some of the more prominent.

Steven Cherry: Maybe you could just summarize the conclusions of the report. Then we'll get into the details.

Thomas Graedel: The conclusions are that we have no immediate shortage of most materials. Possibly excepting restrictions on export from some countries. It's not that we don't have sufficient quantities in the ground, but there are many aspects of their potential extraction and world trade and use that could constrain supplies over the next decade or two.

Steven Cherry: Why can't we just start mining them more? What's the problem with getting them out?

Thomas Graedel: The first problem, I think, is that nature is a bit whimsical in how it has deposited the materials, and we have some that are deposited in minable form only in one or two or three places worldwide. Platinum, for example, is essentially only available from South Africa and much smaller amounts in Russia and much smaller amounts again in Canada, and no other country has minable deposits. So basically the deposits is one limitation. Another is that many of the elements—indium, tellurium, for example—are minor trace constituents of the actual metals that are mined. We don't mine indium. We mine zinc and hope that we can recover the indium as a low concentration by-product. This only happens if the technology is available and if the markets make it profitable to do that.

Steven Cherry: So it's not profitable to mine on its own. But are there environmental concerns as well?

Thomas Graedel: In some cases there are significant environmental concerns. This could relate to where the mine is located. It could relate to how the material happens to be processed. It could relate to whether there's a sufficient water supply locally, because normally crushing and separating takes significant amounts of water

Steven Cherry: You mentioned that not every nation has every metal. That makes this something of a national security concern in a way. And just before you released this report U.S. Senator Mark Udall [D-Colo.] introduced a bill called the Critical Minerals and Materials Promotion Act of 2011. I'm just wondering, how well does that piece of legislation square with the thoughts of the report?

Thomas Graedel: We looked at that legislation on the day that the report was released, and I think we are quite content with the basic thrust and the details of the legislation. It will certainly help make the U.S. more element-ready. Having said that, because all elements don't occur in all places, this is not a situation where the U.S. can mine its way out of the problem. It will take a very careful coordination around the globe to make the materials generally available, so as technology has gone worldwide and as it has used so many materials, we also have world trade on all these materials and without it modern technology just doesn't work anymore.

Steven Cherry: So maybe we could just say in a little more detail, what are the steps to solving this problem.

Thomas Graedel: The report makes five recommendations. One of them is that we need to do a much better job of gathering, analyzing, and disseminating information, and to do it across the whole life cycle of these elements—how much is in the ground, how much is being used, how much is being recycled. And how those processes might change. There's a significant research and development challenge to do a better job of recycling technology, to find ways of using less material to do the same job. The report also makes a negative recommendation in a sense, that it does not recommend that countries stockpile materials, because that, over time, has been shown to have rather negative implications for materials. It tends to lock you into a situation where your technology is dependent on certain materials and if your technology changes your stockpile hasn't kept up. So that was a negative recommendation, but the positive recommendations were directed toward doing a better job of gathering information that is available in pieces around the world but not in any coordinated or consistent fashion. And then for the U.S., having the White House office of science and technology policy create a committee to coordinate actions among the U.S. government departments that have some piece of this action: the geological survey, the EPA, the interior department, and so forth. And in fact that subcommittee is in the process of being created.

Steven Cherry: So it sounds like when it comes to these critical elements, in some cases we may actually, at some point, have shortages. In other cases, we may just have high prices because of the various difficulties of mining and so forth. And then finally some nations might ignore the recommendation and stockpile critical elements. What is a country like the United States supposed to do in the face of any of those problems?

Thomas Graedel: I think the No. 1 thing is to make sure that we really are aware of them not just in concept, but in enough quantitative detail so that we have some idea of which materials should be of more concern than other materials. The European Union last year issued a report by a committee of its people identifying a set of 14 elements that it defined as "critical for European industry." It's not clear that the same set would be the one you'd choose for any other country in the world or any other group of countries. At Yale we are working on a detailed methodology to try to identify which metals specifically are of more concern than which others.

Steven Cherry: So information is a necessary condition for insuring a future supply of critical elements, but it's not a sufficient condition. What do you think the likelihood is of one country waging a sort of economic warfare on another via critical elements?

Thomas Graedel: I think in the long run this is probably unlikely, because all countries need just about everything these days and no country has everything.

Steven Cherry: I guess, ironically, critical elements are needed for warfare and not every country has enough of everything that it needs, so in order to protect itself from real warfare it can't really engage in economic warfare.

Thomas Graedel: I think that's true. In a sense, the use by technology of virtually the entire periodic table is in a sense an encouragement to international stability

Steven Cherry: Wow. People talked about atoms for peace in the '50s—I guess technology for peace is our slogan now.

Thomas Graedel: It sounds good

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, that sounds like a great note to leave it on. Thank you so much.

Thomas Graedel: You're welcome.

Steven Cherry: We've been speaking with Thomas Graedel of Yale University's Center for Industrial Ecology about the critical need for the Earth's rare and other critical elements.

For IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology," I'm Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 1 March 2011.
Segment producer: Ariel Bleicher; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
Follow us on Twitter @spectrumpodcast

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum's audio programming is the audio version.