When recent headlines announced that rare earth elements might become a weapon in the growing trade war between the U.S. and China, green tech leaders may have suffered from flashbacks.
Throughout the 21st century, China has dominated global production of these metals which are vital to cell phones and hard drives as well as green technologies like wind turbines, hybrid and electric cars, and some kinds of energy efficient lighting.
Prices spiked after China first restricted exports back in 2010, setting in motion a series of responses by private industry and the U.S. federal government. Those policy actions continue to affect the outlook for rare earths, as described by the U.S. Department of Commerce in a recently released strategy to increase internal supplies of critical materials.
'Mining' shredded hard drives and other e-waste
Some of the action items laid out in the report are quite sensible. The report calls for advancing R&D into recycling and reprocessing technologies, as well as researching ways to reduce use or develop alternatives to critical materials.
All of this began under the Obama Administration, which established in 2012 the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), a partnership between the federally funded national labs, private companies, and academic researchers across the country.
CMI researchers have developed an acid-free technique for dissolving and recovering rare earths from shredded hard drives, for instance. Treating e-waste as an “urban mine” may be especially important as the impending upgrade to 5G will consign another generation of consumer electronics to obsolescence.
Another federal partnership program, the National Energy Technologies Laboratory’s Rare Earths program, begun in 2014, has funded experiments to recover rare earths from acid mine drainage and coal tailings in Appalachia. This is likely to benefit coal companies if it pays off, but it could create a potential pathway for coal interests to benefit from a greener energy economy.
The challenge of domestic production
The U.S. Commerce Department also does well in its call to help companies translate research on alternate forms of rare earth production into practice at the operational level.
Historically, government support has been crucial for innovation, with the development of aviation and computing being especially notable examples. Indeed, China’s current dominance of rare earth production has been partly a product of long-term industrial policy and sustained investment (along with the Chinese government’s willingness to sacrifice the health of whole villages and accept extensive water pollution).
However, we should be wary of the Strategy’s suggestions for streamlining federal permitting and opening federal lands to new exploration that would ultimately cause a great deal of harm to the environment. America once had a flagship source of rare earths at a mine and processing facility in Mountain Pass, California, which was forced to shut down in the early 2000s due to the water pollution created by inadequately maintained pipes.
Today the mine ships semi-processed material to China for final refining, and the mine’s new owners would like to restart full processing in the US. But paying for adequate environmental protection is tricky when rare earth prices are generally low, and Chinese manufacturers don’t face the same costs.
A sustainable rare earth industry — that is, one that can endure — needs to not damage the environment and harm human health for it to maintain long-term public support and social license. We need to continue to invest in research while more broadly learning to see the materials essential to contemporary ways of life.
The government's critical role
Government support for research and development of green tech is something that Americans want.
A recent poll found that although over a quarter (26 percent) of American consumers had never heard of the rare earth elements, they are curious to learn about how scientific discoveries like this affect daily life. Government support and aid in this area will surely help increase awareness and guide us to where we need to be.
What’s more, the same poll found that nearly one-third (32 percent) of Americans believe clean energy and climate-friendly technology will have the greatest impact on the world in five years. Sustainable rare earth production fits nicely into this category, which is why we must take advantage of the current low prices and lack of a supply crisis to establish environmentally-friendly systems now that do it right over the long term.
Roger Turner is a research fellow at the Science History Institute.