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Critical Earth Elements - The Achilles Heel of the Sustainability Transition

Updated: Nov 26, 2021




When I explore the many risks to industry and countries associated with our global sustainable transition, certainly the increased reliance on critical and rare earth elements rises near the top of the list.


First let's start with the difference between critical earth elements and rare earth elements. For those who drink, its a bit like bourbon. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Similarly, the U.S. government officially considers all rare earth elements as critical but there are additional elements that are not rare earth elements but are critical.


The rare earth elements (REE) are a set of seventeen metallic elements. These include the fifteen lanthanides on the periodic table plus scandium and yttrium.


On February 16, 2018, Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey published a draft list of 35 critical minerals under Executive Order 13817. The list of critical minerals, is intended to be a dynamic list updated periodically to represent current data on supply, demand, and concentration of production, as well as current policy priorities. These 35 minerals are critical because of America's dependence for the manufacturing of a variety of technologies and products including those for defense, health care, electronics and mobility.


Rare earth elements (REEs) actually are not that rare. However, their concentration can be relatively weak making the costs of extraction unfeasible and/or technologically complicated. REEs are a group of 17 elements .


Examples of how REEs are vital to our transitioning economy can be found in a number of important technologies. For example:


  • Thin-film solar PV is heavily dependent on Indium (In), Gallium (Ga) and Selenium (Se)

  • Direct drive wind turbines require Neodymium (Nd) and Dysprosium (Dy).

  • Electric and Hybrid vehicles need Lithium (Li), Cobalt (Co)

  • Magnetics used in computers, electronics, power generation, mobility and health care rely on Neodymium (Nd), Terbium (Tb), Dysprosium (Dy) and Praseodymium (Pr).

  • Ceramics used in sensors and capacitors use Neodymium (Nd), Yttrium (Y), Europium (Eu), Dysprosium (Dy), Lutetium (Lu), Gadolinium (Gd), Lanthanum (La), Cerium (Ce), and Praseodymium (Pr).

THE RISKS


According to a 2020 Congressional Report, in 2019, the United States imported 100% of rare earth metals and compounds it consumed, even though it exported some domestically mined rare earth element concentrate for further processing (due in part to a lack of domestic processing facilities).


From the 1960s until around 1985, the United States was the world’s largest producer of REE. However, in 2008, China accounted for more than 90 percent of world production of REEs, and by 2011, China accounted for 97 percent of world production.


Could China cut off supply and exports? Well they have already shown the answer to be yes. China temporarily cut off rare-earth exports to Japan in 2010 when tensions rose over the Senkaku Islands. And recent reporting indicates that China this year has been threatening the export of REEs to the U.S.


As reported by Forbes, China is also stockpiling rare earths and critical minerals for its own domestic use. Why? China can stockpile and horde the minerals to drive up supply chain costs. As an example, with the explosion of Electric Vehicle commitments, China can drive up the costs for batteries, making it cheaper to for Chinese EV manufacturers than in the United States.


In addition to trade threats, there is increasing risks associated with climate change and severe weather which can have adverse impacts to movement of the supply chain let alone risks that seem to be increasing over territorial rights and military presence in the South China Sea.


NEED ACTIONS


Technology is a wonderfully dynamic process where innovation happens at a rapid pace.


We should leverage our innovative DNA and invest more resources into our universities, national labs and corporate R&D facilities to develop alternative feedstocks and resources that can reduce dependence on imports of REEs.


However, this will take time. In the interim there are a number of policies and tax incentives that can make investment and operation of domestic mining and mineral processing of REEs more attractive and increase U.S. production to reduce our reliance on imports.


Some are proposing that coal and coal byproducts offer economically feasible supplies of REEs. This should be given a considered policy evaluation as part of a holistic approach. However, special attention should be given to the environmental impacts associated with mining and the very significant issues of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the extraction and combustion of coal. All of which runs counter to the use of REEs to grow sustainable and renewable technologies and mitigate our changing climate.


Years ago prior to my roles in academia I was a VP at Waste Management and the family of companies. While I was there my divisions started an emerging waste electronics recycling program. We should continue to expand these type of programs and make it a national priority to harvest REEs and Critical Earth elements.


Finally, a more comprehensive and updated analysis and resulting from REEs and Critical Earth Elements should be pulled together and engage thought leaders from the private and public sectors.


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