R&D, not Greenland, can solve our rare earth problem
While President Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland lit up social media feeds and left many scratching their heads, people who work on rare earth elements were not surprised. Greenland has rare earth elements, and currently most are mined in China. Meanwhile, the president’s trade war with China could disrupt access to these metals crucial to green energy, defense systems and consumer technology.
The “rare earth” label implies scarcity or extreme value, but the label is little more than a stubborn artifact of 18th-century naming conventions. The mineral gadolinite, first dug up in 1788 and from which the first rare earth elements were separated, was “rare” because it had never been found before, and “earth” because it could be dissolved in acid.
The antiquated label persists because it fuels scarcity myths, which in turn have proven useful to justify extreme measures to secure these metals — like repealing mining moratoriums in Greenland or granting U.S. citizens property rights to outer space resources.
Because the rare earth elements are largely produced in China, Americans of all ideological stripes tend to project their anxieties about China onto the rare earths. People use the rare earths to tell stories of American industrial decline, the power of China’s authoritarian central planning or of American vulnerability. Rarely told is the story of what is shared by China and the U.S. — worries about pollution, desires to reap the benefits of natural resources, histories of imposing the health and environmental costs of production on marginalized people distant from the centers of power.
As with other commodities produced for global consumption in the last 30 years, China’s hinterlands have absorbed a disproportionate share of the pollution generated by rare earth processing. This also means that scientists in China and their international colleagues have built unparalleled expertise in how to remediate polluted areas and ensure that newer facilities do less harm. The problem is that rare earths have been made into a bargaining chip in the ongoing U.S.-China trade dispute, which overshadows our shared interests and hobbles our progress toward lasting solutions.
Instead of periodically reviving rare earth scarcity myths to stoke anti-China sentiment or justify outlandish ideas like buying Greenland or pulverizing the moon, we can invest in several areas where people are already working.
First, we must capitalize on shared global interests to ensure that the new rare earth supply chains are the greatest and greenest. This means working with experts who have already solved technical and environmental problems related to rare earth processing in other parts of the world, like Japan, the EU, Brazil and China. This is not a radical proposal. Collaboration among the best minds is the norm for major technological undertakings, including those considered “critical” or “sensitive” as rare earths currently are.
For example, the Manhattan project depended on the collaboration between U.S., European and Asian scientists. Chinese scientistChien-Shiung Wu played an important role in separating uranium isotopes for the U.S. nuclear weapons program. Although pundits love to conjure a monolithic “China” as the bogeyman in contemporary rare earth politics, U.S. and Chinese scientists have worked together for decades. We have much to gain by expanding, rather than suppressing, these means for collaboration.
Second, focusing on processing rather than mining will actually address the concerns surrounding China’s dominance in the rare earth sector. The U.S. could open a dozen rare earth mines and it would do little to change the current situation if we do not invest in refining rare earths and rebuilding technological manufacturing.
Simply opening new mines means that the refining process and associated environmental harms remain concentrated in China. Instead, we could create jobs, protect national security and revitalize U.S. technological leadership by developing a green rare earth refining and recycling program. This will not happen overnight, which means it won’t occur within the shorter timetable associated with election cycles. But if we want to restore U.S. leadership in 21st-century technology production in the next decade, then investments in R&D need to increase now.
Third, let’s get out of the 20th-century production mentality that mining necessarily must be dirty and dangerous. There are several promising developments underway, but they need more support if they are to lead us to the paradigm shift that we need.
A federal rare earth recycling program could pave the way for local and private sector initiatives.
Less than 1 percent of all rare earths consumed are recycled. This exacerbates our dependence on China and increases pressure to open new mines.
Laboratory research has revealed possible ways to recover the rare earth metals from electronic waste. At the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, researchers have developed an acid-free technique for recovering rare earth metals from shredded hard drives. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania uses ionic ligands to separate two of the rare earth metals crucial for making powerful magnets.
While promising, these techniques can’t yet compete financially with the current low prices for newly mined materials, which rarely include the cost of environmental protections.
Promoting research and knowledge-sharing to extract rare earths from the waste in existing mines would solve two problems at once: It would reduce the long-term problem of tailings ponds, which wreak havoc when they flood or burst, and it would make new sources of rare earths available without digging new holes in the ground. As an added benefit, this would make it easier to rehabilitate old mining sites.
These approaches are already well founded. Researchers at the University of West Virginia are building a pilot plant for extracting rare earth metals from acid mine drainage, the poisoned water seeping out of abandoned coal mines. In Brazil, the company that operates the Araxá mine has developed techniques for recovering rare earths from waste left behind from niobium mining. But the current low prices mean these better practices are not currently profitable, but this can be addressed with supportive policies.
A final key opportunity to solve the rare earth supply challenge is to address one of the most important but least appreciated drivers of increasing demand: the inability of most consumers to repair their own technologies, or to simply purchase replacement components rather than entirely new products. People have a right to repair the things they own, but this right has been steadily eroded over time. Much of this is by design, which means it can be fixed with better design. Increased support for existing “Right to Repair” policy initiatives will help reduce the flow of waste, and ease demand for these critical materials.
Should the U.S. take responsibility for its rare earth needs? If we do this wisely, everyone stands to benefit. Many domestic and international efforts are already underway, but they have been overshadowed by the politically-charged rhetoric surrounding the U.S.-China trade dispute and its accompanying proposals that seem to hark from another era, when we didn’t possess the accumulated technological know-how that we now have at our disposal.
Opening more mines like it’s 1590, buying territories like it’s 1867, or blasting asteroids like we’re in a 1950s sci-fi flick won’t solve the problem, because the problem is not a shortage of unrefined ores. Instead, smart R&D investments will bring our production, consumption and disposal practices into the 21st century. This means reducing waste, increasing recycling and repair, and cleaning up the dirtiest and most dangerous aspects of the supply chain.
Julie Michelle Klinger, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, and the author of “Rare Earth Frontiers.”
Roger Turner, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia.