The Case of Rare Earth Elements: Manufacturers
You require rare earth elements in the manufacture of a variety of products, and although you prefer to source these elements responsibly, your main concern is the threat of restrictions that could adversely affect a stable, consistent supply. The Sustainability Seal should mandate responsible production and waste management, but more important, it should focus on production practices that will prevent dramatic supply shocks and cost increases.
Read the Statement of Guiding Values and your group’s Goals and Recommendations for the final Sustainability Seal, and use them to prepare answers to the following questions, which the Stewards will ask during the Summit:
- The mining and production of rare earth elements can result in intense and long-lasting water and soil pollution, yet these elements are in high demand for countless modern technologies. Are there truly sustainable methods for mining and using rare earth elements? How can cleaner but more costly forms of production compete with cheaper mining operations and illegal smuggling? Who in the production cycle of rare earths should bear the burden of evaluating and minimizing environmental impact?
- Great strides have been made in the effort to efficiently recycle rare earth elements, but the science behind these technologies is still being tested and existing methods are not widely implemented. Is it possible to prioritize recycling and reuse in the demand for rare earths? What is the most effective way to create incentives for recycling and reuse to reduce new production?
- The goal of this Summit is to create a Sustainability Seal for the mining, production, and use of rare earth elements. What are the critical factors that must be addressed when discussing the sustainability of rare earths? What are the biggest obstacles to making rare earth elements a sustainable resource? What new problems might result from the creation of this seal?
- What historical examples and evidence provide useful lessons about the successes or failures of addressing the impact and implications of our use of rare earth elements?
- Do the problems caused by our use of rare earth elements outweigh the benefits that they provide?
How Are Rare Earth Elements Used in Green Technology?
Adam Schwartz (Director, Ames Laboratory):
More widely than ever before. For example, wind turbines are probably the greatest example out there. Wind energy is taking a larger and larger share of United States and global energy production, and the reason is because it’s relatively straightforward, it is very much renewable, and does not have a significant impact on the environment. There are two main types of wind turbines. One type is called direct drive, and direct drive requires significant amounts of the rare earth elements, the rare earth magnets, neodymium-iron-boron. And those turbines are very efficient, and they are very, very reliable. The downside is they require a lot of that rare earth permanent magnet. The other type of wind turbine is gear driven, and gear driven requires less of those high-performance permanent magnets, but are also much less reliable. So as research continues and the world develops high-performing permanent magnets that require less or no rare earth elements, that will further accelerate the adoption of renewable energy.
For the energy storage side there is still an open question as to what sort of energy storage is going to be dominant. There’s still research into fuel cells, but most of the research is currently going to—most of the research and most of the application is in batteries: lithium ion versus metal hydride, nickel–metal hydride. And for the nickel–metal hydride batteries, lanthanum is the element of choice. So as the competition between lithium ion, nickel–metal hydride, other types of batteries continues to move forward, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if small quantities of rare earth elements play a big role in electric mobility and electric vehicles going forward.
Credits: The Rare Earth Elements Project is made possible by a generous grant from Roy Eddleman, founder of Spectrum LifeSciences.
Illustrations and animations: Claud Li
Music: “Crafty” by Podington Bear
(c) 2020 Science History Institute
VP for Environmental and Social Initiatives at a Consumer Electronics Manufacturer
You are an executive at a multinational corporation that is reliant on rare earths and interested in using the company’s purchases to improve the environment and society.
CEO of a Wind Turbine Manufacturer
You are the leader of a European sustainable energy company interested in stabilizing the supply of rare earths for the future of global energy.
Vice President of a Defense Contractor
You are the vp of a weapons-making company that regularly contracts with the U.S. government and is mainly concerned about creating and sustaining a domestic supply of rare earth elements.
Chief Sustainability Officer for a Major Automaker
You are an executive at a Japanese electric car manufacturer who is concerned about pollution caused by rare earth mining.
Owner of a Catalytic Converters Company
You are a Canadian business owner who is seeking to make auto parts from ethically sourced rare earth metals.
Consultant to Medical Device Makers
You are a researcher based in Brazil who consults with companies about the medical applications of rare earth elements and who is interested in ensuring a reliable supply of rare earth elements for medical applications.
Goals & Recommendations
Recommendations for the Ethical Production of Rare Earth Elements
Prepared in Advance of the Summit
Main Concerns of the Manufacturers Group:
- Maintaining a consistent supply of rare earths is essential for manufacturing many valuable products. Producing rare earths in multiple countries in different parts of the world would make the supply chain more stable.
- While current prices for rare earth metals are relatively low, prices have spiked in the past when supplies of metals seemed to be unstable. Manufacturers should weigh the option of paying more now to ensure stable prices over the longer term.
- Recycling could be an ethical source of rare earth metals in the future. Manufacturers need help from activists, consumers, and producers to make recycling viable and cost-effective.
- Transparency about the mining and production process of rare earth elements should be ensured to help manufacturers know they are buying metals that have been legally mined and produced in ethical ways.
- Activists and consumers are becoming more aware of the harms that have been caused by rare earth metal production. Protests and boycotts centered on rare earth production could hurt manufacturers. A credible Sustainability Seal could help show that manufacturers are working to make things better.
Recommendations Based on Manufacturers Group Concerns:
- Producers, manufacturers, consumers, and activists should work together to support establishing new sources of rare earth production in different parts of the world. Production in more countries means supplies are less vulnerable to disruption.
- Producers and manufacturers should follow all laws in the countries where they operate.
- Programs to gather discarded consumer products and recover rare earth elements from waste should be supported so that manufacturers have the option to buy recycled rare earth metals.
- Transparency must be enforced. Producers must track where and how rare earth metals are mined and separated. The chain of custody must be documented and available for manufacturers to see before they buy raw materials.
- Reducing pollution is important but so is keeping the cost of raw materials reasonable. Producers should use the best technologies practicable to control waste.
Assigned Readings & Other Sources
- Bailey, Gwendolyn, and Karel Van Acker. “Why the Electric-Vehicle Industry Must Work with the Producers of Rare Earths to Ensure a Sustainable Supply of These Critical Raw Materials for Europe.” Policy brief, EU MSCA-ETN DEMETER, September 2018.
- Center for Diagnostic Imaging. “What It’s Like to Get a High-Field Open MRI.” February 3, 2015. (Video, 2:16 min.)
- Davidson, Ros. “Wind Industry Prepares for ‘Bottlenecks and Price Hikes’ in Rare Earth Metals.” Foresight Climate and Energy, republished at Medium.com, August 23, 2019.
- Dodd, Jan. “Rethinking the Use of Rare-Earth Elements.” Wind Power Monthly, November 30, 2018.
- Edison Group. “Electric Vehicles and Rare Earths.” Edison Investment Limited, January 29, 2019.
- Garcia, Mitch André. “Patent Picks: Catalytic Converters.” Chemical and Engineering News, June 29, 2015.
- Gerdeman, Dina. “What Do Chief Sustainability Officers Do?” Forbes, October 4, 2014.
- Giese, E. C. “Rare Earth Elements: Therapeutic and Diagnostic Applications in Modern Medicine.” Clinical and Medical Reports 2:1 (December 14, 2018), 1–2.
- Grasso, Valerie Bailey. “Rare Earth Elements in National Defense: Background, Oversight Issues, and Options for Congress.” Congressional Research Service White Paper, December 23, 2013. (Read pp. 10–15, “Background on Rare Earth Elements” through “Supply Chain Issues.”)
- Grier, Peter. “Rare-Earth Uncertainty.” Air Force Magazine, December 21, 2017.
- Griffin, Andrew. “Apple Environment Head Lisa Jackson on Its Greener New iPhone—and the Work It Still Has to Do.” Independent, October 10, 2019.
- Liu, Hongqiao. “Apple and Rare Earth Recycling.” China Water Risk, September 18, 2017.
- Lynas Corporation. “Rare Earths in Catalytic Converters Improve Their Effectiveness.” lynascorp.com.
- Ma, Alexandra. “From iPhones to Fighter Jets: Here’s a List of American Products That Could Be Affected If China Banned Rare-Earth Metal Exports to the US as a Trade-War Weapon.” Business Insider, May 21, 2019.
- Nissan Motors. “Fewer Rare Earths Build a Greener LEAF.” June 8, 2016. (Video, 1:56 min.)
- Stewart, Phil, and Andrea Shalal. “Pentagon Seeks Funds to Reduce U.S. Reliance on China’s Rare Earth Metals.” Reuters, May 29, 2019.
- Stone, Maddie. “Behind the Hype of Apple’s Plan to End Mining.” Earther: Gizmodo, March 6, 2019.