Have you heard of Lanthanum, Cerium or Neodymium? These elements and others are known collectively as 'rare earth elements' and play a major role in modern technology.
From iPhones to missiles, rare earth elements are used in just about everything. But although rare earth elements can be found all over the world, they are incredibly difficult to isolate. Extracting them requires the use of harsh chemicals that are harmful to the environment.
A new study shows that it might be possible to extract rare earth elements from coal in the United States by rinsing discarded coal in a chemical solution.
What Are Rare Earth Metals?
Well, for one, they are not very rare. There are 17 elements in the middle of the periodic table which come under the category of rare earth. They are found in many places on earth, but not in quantities that can be mined. Only a few countries – China, US, India, Australia, Brazil, and Malaysia have enough that can be mined and traded. These metals have a rare quality; they are magnetic and they shine.
Even though some of these elements such as Cerium are as abundant as Copper, they are not found in concentrated amounts on the earth's surface. They are often mixed together with trace amounts of other metals, which makes extraction of these elements an expensive and an environmentally messy process. It was due to these reasons that the term 'rare earth' was coined.
Where Are They Used?
Well, you won't believe it, but these rare earth metals are used in items we use every day. Rechargeable car batteries, solar cells, computers, iPhones, DVD players, wind turbines, televisions, lighting, lasers, glass polishing, superconductors, and weapons -- all use copious quantities of rare earth metals. Did you know that each Prius hybrid car uses 10 pounds of Lanthanum for its rechargeable battery!
China In Command
The U.S has deposits of certain rare earth metals and has one of the first mines that was opened in Southern California in 1940. The element 'Europium' was the first metal to be isolated in quantity for use in color televisions. The red color generated by the element made brighter colors and sharp contrast on televisions possible.
However, in 1980's and 1990's, as China started mass producing these elements in Inner Mongolia, the mines in the U.S and elsewhere could not keep pace. Many of them closed down. When China decided to cut the export of rare earth elements by 40% in 2010, countries around the world panicked. It led to the reopening of mines in the U.S. Technology companies started looking for alternative ways of designing their products that required less of the rare earth elements.
China has since increased the supply of rare earth and the situation has eased. But the fact remains that the world is heavily dependent on one country for its rare earth needs.