Unless you’re living under a rock, it’s quite obvious that the world revolves around advanced technology. Worldwide, there are roughly six billion smartphone subscriptions, with each one having tremendous computing power. This advanced tech is the reason space exploration has been renewed, and it will play a major role in addressing global issues like climate change and energy crises. But what may not be readily apparent are the materials required to make these devices, machines, and gizmos. Rare earth metals and elements play a major role, and appreciating their importance is critical. The list of rare earth element uses continues to grow, and securing them for the future could be challenging.
(What do you know about lithium batteries? If the answer is not much, Bold has got you covered here.)
When it comes to rare earth metals, most of us can probably guess a few of the more common ones. Lithium, cobalt, and manganese fall into this category as does silicon and graphite. But there are many other rare earth metals and elements that go by some pretty odd names. Collectively, these metals are called lanthanides and make up an entire row of the period table. Interestingly, it is the properties and structures that these specific elements have that make them so valuable in today’s world. And these same properties explain why the number of rare earth element uses is so vast. Without them, today’s advanced technologies wouldn’t exist. And neither would all the conveniences we enjoy because of them.
“Lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas.” – Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for Internal Markets
What’s the Big Deal with Rare Earth Metals and Elements?
With the metals used in advanced tech, not all actually go by the name rare earth metals. Metals like lithium, cobalt, and boron do not technically fit into this category despite the increasing challenges in mining them. The actual rare earth metals or elements consist of 17 other elements in the periodic table. Of these, 15 are within a group called lanthanides, with two others having similar chemical properties. Often described as half-metals, these silvery, gray elements tend to be rather malleable and have high boiling-melting points. While this is advantageous for various electronics, it’s actually their capacity for luminescence and magnetism that makes them attractive. These are the properties that explains the many rare earth element uses today.
The lanthanides are unique because of the way their orbital electrons are positioned outside the nucleus. Their valence electrons sit on the outermost orbit similar to other elements. But another group of electrons, called f-electrons, sit just below this orbit in a somewhat protected manner. These f-electrons occupy seven sub-orbits with many being unpaired. It is precisely this unpairing that magnetizes these elements. And it’s their location that allows them to be excited and emit different light wavelengths without damage. Notably, each lanthanide emits a predictable wavelength of light, making it ideal for coloring devices and screens. And combining lanthanides with other metal alloys creates extremely powerful magnets. These incredibly robust properties is why there are so many rare earth elements uses among different technologies.
Important Rare Earth Element Uses
Despite their importance to advanced technologies, many people fail to appreciate the value of rare earth metals. Their unique electron structures not only make them ideal when dealing with magnets and luminescence. But these also enable miniaturization of technologies because of the powerful punch they offer. In terms of luminescence, different lanthanides emit different light wavelengths. For example, terbium emits green light when excited while europium can be manipulated to emit red or blue light. Combined, these rare earth element uses can provide a full spectrum of color. This is why these are commonly used for smartphone and computer screens. Others, like yttrium, emits an invisible light but can be used in a variety of lasers. This rare earth metal is involved lasers used for surgeries and tattoo removal as well as for cutting metals.
Notably, some of the most important rare earth element uses relate to magnetism. The polarized nature of some of the f-electron orbits account for these properties. As such, rare earth metals can be used to create sound waves, vibrations, and powerful magnets. For example, neodymium is commonly used to provide smartphone vibrations, sounds for earbuds, and MRI magnetic fields. Others like samarium and dysprosium are used in magnetized car, airplane, and missile components. Their heat resistance makes them ideal for these types of magnetic systems. And finally, rare earth element uses also include enhanced fiberoptic signal relays. These are important to boost signals traversing cables that go a long distance or along the ocean floor. As is clear based on these examples, rare earth metals have made modern technologies possible.
“The unsustainable usage of seven elements in smartphones (carbon, yttrium, gallium, arsenic, silver, indium and tantalum) will pose a serious threat of depletion in the next 100 years.” – 2022 Statement by the European Chemic Society
Resource Scarcity and Environmental Harms
When it comes to rare earth metals, demand is increasing exponentially throughout the world. Given the expansion of rare earth element uses, this is not surprising. According to expert projections, demand for all of these compounds combined will grow by 400-600% in the next couple of decades. For key rare earth metals like lithium and graphite used in batteries, growth will exceed 4000%! Understanding this, acquiring these resources will be important, and currently, China is leading the way. Of all rare earth metals, China produces 60-70% of the world’s supply. In contrast, the U.S. only produces 14%. China is also actively pursuing rights to mine these rare earth elements in Africa. Many believe these resources will soon become the most valued in the world because of the expanding rare earth element uses.
Despite their name, rare earth metals are not as scarce as presumed. However, they are extremely difficult to mine, and mining for them has notable environmental hazards. While different mining techniques may be used, most involve leaching pools to extract these rare earth elements. As such, these leaching pools leave behind toxic chemicals harmful to the environment. At the same time, most of these rare earth metals are in close proximity to radioactive elements like uranium. Thus, mining also increases exposure to radioactive materials as well. And rarely are the materials and devices involved in rare earth element uses recycled. These are key issues that will plague mining of rare earth metals over time.
Scarcity and environmental issues will need to be addressed in the coming years. But it’s clear that the increase in rare earth element uses will bring such concerns to the forefront. As technologies continue to advance and shrink, it’s guaranteed rare earth metals will be required. Therefore, planning ahead for our future needs for these resources is critical. They may well become the most precious metals on earth in a very short time.