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.