We need to mine more rare earth metals if we build the electric vehicles and other technologies we need to save the planet from climate change. It's an interesting dichotomy, as people who have traditionally been against mining for environmental reasons are now some of the loudest voices supporting it. Mining tends to be seen as something that contributes to climate by way of emissions from extracting and processing the materials, but if we want to get serious about reducing emissions, rare earth metals are going to be essential.
There's no denying that mining can have a devastating impact on the environment. But as we face the reality of climate change, we need to consider all of our options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And electric vehicles are a key part of that solution.
Electric vehicles are powered by batteries, which need metals like cobalt, lithium and nickel. To meet the demand for these metals, we will need to increase mining operations around the world. That doesn't mean we can just start digging anywhere. We need to be thoughtful about how we mine to minimise the environmental damage. And we need to make sure that the communities where mining takes place to benefit from the operations.
Some people argue that we should focus on recycling rare earth metals instead of mining more. But recycling alone won't be enough. We need to mine more if we're going to build the electric vehicles and other technologies we need to save the planet.
These materials are essential for making things like batteries, magnets and motors, but they're becoming increasingly scarce. And that's a big problem because demand for them will only increase as we move away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner energy sources.
There are 17 rare earth elements in total, and they're not all that rare. But they tend to be found in small quantities and are often mixed together, making them difficult to extract. China currently produces around 85% of the world's supply, but that's set to change as other countries start mining them too.
Australia, for example, has some of the richest deposits of rare earths in the world and is already starting to ramp up production. The United States is also home to significant reserves but hasn't been mining them for many years.
That needs to change if we're going to meet our climate goals. Electric vehicles are a crucial part of the equation, emitting far less carbon dioxide than petrol or diesel cars. But we can't build them without rare earth metals.
The good news is that recycling these materials is becoming more efficient, so we can prolong their life and reduce our reliance on mining. But it's not enough on its own – we need to increase supply as well as demand if we're going save the planet.
The 17 rare earth elements are: scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium thulium, ytterbium and lutetium. All of these are metals with unique properties that make them essential for various technologies.
Scandium: This metal is light but strong. It can be used in alloys such as baseball bats to make materials stronger and lighter.
Yttrium: Yttrium is often used in lasers and LED lights, as it helps to create a white light.
Lanthanum: Lanthanum is used in making camera lenses, as it helps to produce a clear image.
Cerium: Cerium is used in self-cleaning ovens, as it helps to remove grease and grime.
Praseodymium: Praseodymium is used in making stronger magnets for electric motors.
Neodymium: Neodymium is also used in making magnets, as well as glass that absorbs ultraviolet light.
Promethium: Promethium is used in nuclear batteries, as it's radioactive and can help to generate power.
Samarium: Samarium is used in magnets for electric vehicles, as it helps to make them more efficient.
Europium: Europium is used in fluorescent lights, as it makes them brighter.
Gadolinium: Gadolinium is used in MRI machines, as it helps to create a clear image.
Terbium: Terbium is used in wind turbines, as it helps to make the blades more efficient.
Dysprosium: Dysprosium is also used in wind turbines, as well as electric vehicles, because it makes magnets more powerful.
Holmium: Holmium is used in lasers as it helps to produce a high-quality beam.
Erbium: Erbium is used in fibre optic cables, as it helps to transmit light over long distances.
Thulium: Thulium is used in portable X-ray machines as it's a good source of radiation.
Ytterbium: Ytterbium is used in nuclear reactors, as it's a good neutron absorber.
Lutetium: Lutetium is used in catalytic converters as it helps to reduce emissions from cars.
You will probably be surprised to not see lithium or cobalt on this list. While these are also minerals that are vital for electric vehicles, they're not classed as rare earths. This is because they're more abundant, and so there's less need to worry about their supply.
Yes, there is an alternative to rare earth metals. And that alternative is… nothing.
That's because there are no perfect substitutes for rare earth metals in many applications. So if we want to build electric vehicles and other technologies that don't contribute to climate change, we need to mine more of them.
It's not a perfect solution, but it's the best one we have right now. And if we're going to save the planet, we need to start somewhere.
No, we cannot just mine asteroids or the moon. There are no asteroids close enough to Earth to mine! The closest asteroid to Earth is about 3.6 million miles away, and it would be incredibly difficult and expensive to mine it.
The moon is a little closer, but it's not much more practical. In fact, the moon is so far away that all the planets in our solar system would fit between the moon and the earth. There are also no known deposits of rare earth metals on the moon (that we know of), and mining them would be incredibly difficult.
All our knowledge and know-how is built around mining operations based on earth with earth's gravity and atmosphere. This knowledge has been built over centuries. We have zero experience or expertise in mining operations in low gravity and in the vacuum of space.
Yes, this may be something that we do in the future, but it's many decades away, or even centuries away from becoming a viable prospect. Unfortunately, the planet can't afford to wait for us to learn how to mine off-earth. So, for now, we need to focus on terrestrial sources of rare earth metals and use our existing expertise and experience.
Deep sea mining is another option for extracting rare earth metals. But it's a controversial one, as it can damage delicate marine ecosystems.
There are a few deep sea mining operations underway, but they're small scale and not producing enough metals to meet demand. So for now, terrestrial mining is still our best bet.
Technology improvements in the near-term will not eliminate the need for rare earth metals. They are still essential for many applications, and there is no perfect substitute for them.
However, technology can help us use these materials more efficiently and prolong their life. So even as we increase mining operations, we should also continue to invest in research and development to find better ways of using and recycling rare earth metals.
No, I believe we are not too late to save the planet. It will take a lot of hard work, and we must start now. But it's not impossible – we can do it if we all work together. We only have one planet, and if we don't look after it, we won't have a future.
So let's get to work! We need to increase the mining of rare earth materials if we build electric vehicles and other technologies, we need to go green. It's not a perfect solution, but it's the best one we have right now. And if we're going to save the planet, we need to start somewhere.