Rare earth materials and an upcoming Chinese mistake

Readability

Rare earth materials and an upcoming Chinese mistake

Yttrium, from Wikipedia

China con­tin­ues to make the news about its pos­si­ble restric­tion on rare earth met­als. This isn’t new, as China had pre­vi­ously restricted rare earth met­als in 2010 as a move against Japan. Should China decide to impose a ban, it will only hurt them long term though.

In case you don’t have a peri­odic table hang­ing up at home (and you should!), rare earths are tran­si­tion met­als in the mid­dle of the table that have prop­er­ties that make them use­ful in a lot of ways. For exam­ple, yttrium is added to met­als to reduce crys­tal­liza­tion when the mak­ing thick metal struc­tures. This is use­ful for things like nuclear pres­sure ves­sel heads, which need to be con­sis­tently strong and rel­a­tively uni­form through­out. Yttrium also is use­ful for mak­ing lasers, super­con­duc­tors and LEDs.

What makes rare earth met­als rare is that most of them likely didn’t come from planet Earth in the first place. Yttrium likely came from red stars. Other rare earths came from spe­cific con­di­tions of cool­ing lava. Some aren’t even all that rare. Cerium, for exam­ple, is more com­mon than lead

Econ­o­mists are wor­ried that the worlds econ­omy could come down is rare earths are restricted. They see the world sim­plis­ti­cally as

  1. China owns most of rare earth exports
  2. Rare earths enable things like TVs and med­ical equipment
  3. China restrict­ing these exports means they win

But it isn’t that easy. For starters, when some­thing becomes rare, Amer­i­cans find ways to use other things. When silk ran out in WW2 due to the war with Japan, we began using spi­der silk for gun sights. Black widow spi­ders were har­vested by the thou­sands (don’t click the link if you don’t like spi­der pic­tures!) because they were great silk pro­duc­ers and safer to har­vest due to their slow speed. Later on, we devel­oped genet­i­cally mod­i­fied goats that pro­duce milk that silk can be extracted from.

Recy­cling is another pos­si­bil­ity. We don’t sep­a­rate our trash streams very well. Rare earth met­als are use­ful in elec­tron­ics, and sadly they are also very toxic in the envi­ron­ment. Mil­lions of pounds of elec­tron­ics wind up in land­fills, leach­ing these chem­i­cals out. But as recy­cling gets eas­ier, rare earth min­ing won’t be as nec­es­sary. WW2 serves as a good guide for this. Things like kitchen fat were recy­cled and gath­ered to make explo­sives. The same could hap­pen with elec­tron­ics, and our envi­ron­ment would be bet­ter off for it.

China’s attempt to weaponize rare earths is inter­est­ing, but poorly thought out. Long term, it would only serve to jolt us from lazy min­ing into recy­cling and alter­na­tive measures.


This post rep­re­sents the views of the author and not those of the Depart­ment of Defense, Depart­ment of the Navy, or any other gov­ern­ment agency.

Yttrium, from Wikipedia

China continues to make the news about its possible restriction on rare earth metals. This isn’t new, as China had previously restricted rare earth metals in 2010 as a move against Japan. Should China decide to impose a ban, it will only hurt them long term though.

In case you don’t have a periodic table hanging up at home (and you should!), rare earths are transition metals in the middle of the table that have properties that make them useful in a lot of ways. For example, yttrium is added to metals to reduce crystallization when the making thick metal structures. This is useful for things like nuclear pressure vessel heads, which need to be consistently strong and relatively uniform throughout. Yttrium also is useful for making lasers, superconductors and LEDs.

What makes rare earth metals rare is that most of them likely didn’t come from planet Earth in the first place. Yttrium likely came from red stars. Other rare earths came from specific conditions of cooling lava. Some aren’t even all that rare. Cerium, for example, is more common than lead

Economists are worried that the worlds economy could come down is rare earths are restricted. They see the world simplistically as

  1. China owns most of rare earth exports
  2. Rare earths enable things like TVs and medical equipment
  3. China restricting these exports means they win

But it isn’t that easy. For starters, when something becomes rare, Americans find ways to use other things. When silk ran out in WW2 due to the war with Japan, we began using spider silk for gun sights. Black widow spiders were harvested by the thousands (don’t click the link if you don’t like spider pictures!) because they were great silk producers and safer to harvest due to their slow speed. Later on, we developed genetically modified goats that produce milk that silk can be extracted from.

Recycling is another possibility. We don’t separate our trash streams very well. Rare earth metals are useful in electronics, and sadly they are also very toxic in the environment. Millions of pounds of electronics wind up in landfills, leaching these chemicals out. But as recycling gets easier, rare earth mining won’t be as necessary. WW2 serves as a good guide for this. Things like kitchen fat were recycled and gathered to make explosives. The same could happen with electronics, and our environment would be better off for it.

China’s attempt to weaponize rare earths is interesting, but poorly thought out. Long term, it would only serve to jolt us from lazy mining into recycling and alternative measures.


This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.