Rare-earth elements: essential materials for technology

No more wars for entire territories, but wars for a handful of rare-earth metals

When we think of the digital revolution and technology, we could consider them as the dematerialisation of information. A whole series of huge paper archives, documents, letters and notices disappear in their physical form to reappear as a pixel image on a screen. However, we very often forget that this revolution is made possible thanks to the consumption of soil, energy and resources.

The new cloud technologies are very different from their natural equivalents that we can find in the sky. They are not intangible but are composed of several types of hardware made with rare-earth elements, as well as of server warehouses for storing data which work continuously 24 hours a day. This is the material support which the internet and connectivity between different devices are based on.

There are 17 rare-earth elements and they have been discovered only recently, so much so that some of them were included in the periodic table only in the twentieth century. All the rare-earth elements have powerful electromagnetic properties that they maintain even at high temperatures. They also have very important optical features for fibre optic systems for fast internet and lasers. Contrary to their name, they are found in a large variety of minerals linked with other elements in various forms and in minimal portion compared to the total. Hence the enormous work to be able to extract, separate, refine and accumulate enough of them for a purpose. China is the first producer in the world, however there are not many countries that can afford an extraction activity of this magnitude. The rare-earth metals extraction process is particularly complex, dangerous for the environment and harmful to workers. An example of the environmental impact of this process is the so-called “black lake” — Lake Baotou in Mongolia —, an artificial basin made up of industrial waste water which has been continuously active since the 1960s. China holds a monopoly on rare-earth elements not only for the presence of easily accessible points for the extraction of large quantities of material, but above all for having studied and implemented highly specialised industrial processes without taking into account their environmental impact.

In every phone, computer or tablet there are 16 of the 17 rare-earth elements. They are used for the screen, in particular for its luminescence and its touchscreen functionality. Additionally, they are used in microchips for data elaboration. In an electric car even 3000 microchips can be mounted on the engines, in the car components (parking sensors, headlights and dashboard) and for control and safety.

During certain periods of the current pandemic, the world producers of silicon (which is necessary for the production of microchips) have had to close down. At the same time, the demand for computers has exploded because of remote working. This has led the demand to clearly exceed the offer, a situation which is further complicated by the fact that the production of computers is not easily implemented. Nowadays, many manufacturers from different sectors cannot find on the market the electrical components needed for the production of electric cars and smartphones.

The “green industry” itself uses these devices and these materials in bulk. They are installed on wind turbines and on photovoltaic panel systems. They are essential components in batteries and even in LED lamps. The electricity generators installed on wind turbines are partly made up of rare-earth elements, which allow the permanent magnets to work effectively. Therefore, while on the one hand investments by governments in the production of energy from renewable sources and their demand increase, on the other hand the strong impact that the production of these devices has on the environment intensifies.

The protagonists of the geopolitical clashes in relation to rare-earth elements are the USA and China. Up to 400 kilos of rare-earth metals from China can be used in a single US military plane: this puts the United States in a relationship of dependence on China for its own arming needs. However, it is possible to recover these rare-earth metals from devices no longer in use because they are obsolete or malfunctioning, although this method of recovery is not often used, meaning that many rare-earth materials end up in landfills. It is therefore advisable to find alternative solutions. Also in the United States, at the University of Michigan, studies began in 2019 to substitute rare-earth elements with more common composite materials or even just to combine them in devices, so as to lower the level on dependence on foreign imports. The key to discovering new uses for common materials is in research and innovation.

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  • L'Autore

    Andrea Radaelli

    Andrea Radaelli, nato il 20 ottobre 1997, caporedattore del progetto 'Tecnologia ed Innovazione' mi considero un soggetto particolarmente vivace e interessato a come funziona il mondo. L’aggettivo che più spesso hanno utilizzato i miei parenti, i miei amici e le persone che mi stanno accanto per descrivermi è senza dubbio ‘curioso’.

    Curioso del mondo, di come funziona e dei nostri effetti su di esso. Non solo in campo scientifico ma anche economico e geopolitico. Mi interesso di tutto ciò che ha un outcome positivo e propositivo, soprattutto nella sanità e nelle nuove tecnologie.

    Curioso per le mie opinioni molto forti e per certi aspetti critiche sulla società, che a volte diventano i miei limiti. Alcune di queste sono che la conoscenza è faticosa ma rende liberi, che l’ignoranza nell’era dell’informazione è una scelta consapevole e che l’uguaglianza (dare alle persone le stesse cose) è un paradigma da superare con l’equità (dare alle persone le stesse opportunità).

    Curioso anche per la mia personalità; ho delle idee molto ben determinate, sono un convinto ‘individualista sociale’. Cioè che ognuno di noi deve prima crescere e acculturarsi secondo le proprie inclinazioni per poi poter entrare in un gruppo di lavoro per poterlo arricchire della sua prospettiva.

    Curioso per le mie scelte, dopo le medie ho scelto un liceo ad indirizzo artistico nonostante i miei professori spingessero per un liceo classico. Durante questi cinque anni ho avuto modo di viaggiare per l’Italia e scoprire gli incredibili siti dell’UNESCO. Ho viaggiato anche in Europa nelle maggiori capitali e mi sono innamorato dell’Unione Europea. Ho compreso quanto siamo fortunati del far parte di comunità internazionale e delle straordinarie opportunità che offre. Finite le superiori, ho scelto di studiare lingue applicate all’ambito economico nel CdL di ‘Scienze per la Mediazione Linguistica e Culturale’, un’università ricca di diversità; di nazionalità diverse, di lingue diverse e di culture diverse. Tutta questa eterogeneità mi ha spinto a ricercare un percorso magistrale decisamente più strutturato ed innovativo; 'Data Science and Business Intelligence'. La scienza dei dati si compone di principi metodologici basati sul metodo scientifico e di tecniche multidisciplinari volte ad interpretare ed estrarre conoscenza dai dati attraverso l'analisi statistica.

    Di Mondo Internazionale mi ha colpito la potenzialità, la composizione giovane e il dinamismo. Le aree tematiche nel quale mi trovo a mio agio sono economia, sanità e innovazione. Il progetto di ‘Tecnologia ed Innovazione’ è quello con cui collaboro maggiormente e, soprattutto grazie alla pazienza dei miei collaboratori, mi trovo veramente bene.

    Andrea Radaelli, born on 20 October 1997, editor-in-chief of 'Technology and Innovation' project, I consider myself as a particularly lively person and interested in how the world works. The adjective that my relatives and my friends have used the most to describe me is undoubtedly 'curious'.

    Curious about the world, how it works and our effects on it. Not only in the scientific field but also in the economic and geopolitical field. I am interested in everything that has a positive and proactive outcome, especially in healthcare and new technologies.

    Curious for my very strong and, in some respects, critical views on society, which sometimes become my limitations. Some of these are that knowledge takes effort but is essential, that ignorance in the information age is a conscious choice and that equality (giving people the same things) is a paradigm to be overcome with fairness (give people the same opportunities).

    Also curious about my personality; I have very well-defined ideas, I am a convinced 'social individualist'. That is, each of us must first grow and acculturate according to their own tastes in order to be able to be a good team player in a work group in order to enrich it with new insights.

    Curious about my choices, after secondary school I chose an artistic high school despite my teachers pushing for a classical high school. During these five years I have had the opportunity to travel around Italy and discover its incredible UNESCO sites. I also traveled around Europe in the major capitals and fell in love with the European Union. I realized how fortunate we all are to be part of this international community and the extraordinary opportunities it offers. After graduating from high school, I chose to study languages ​​applied to economics, 'Sciences for Linguistic and Cultural Mediation', a university rich in diversity; of different nationalities, of different languages ​​and of different cultures. All this heterogeneity pushed me to seek a decidedly more structured and innovative master's path; 'Data Science and Business Intelligence'. Data science consists of methodological principles based on statistics, scientific method and multidisciplinary techniques aimed at interpreting and extracting knowledge from data through statistical analysis.

    I was struck by Mondo Internazionale's potential, young composition and dynamism. The thematic areas in which I am comfortable are economics, health and innovation. The 'Technology and Innovation' project is the one I collaborate with most and, thanks to the patience of my collaborators, I am really happy with it.


From the World Sections Environment & Development Society Politics Technology and Innovation


terre rare rare earths Cina USA Environment Digitale digital Internet cloud

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