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Plants and AnimalsThe Energy Transition Will Need More Rare Earth Elements. Can We Secure...

The Energy Transition Will Need More Rare Earth Elements. Can We Secure Them Sustainably?

The Energy Transition Will Need More Rare Earth Elements. Can We Secure Them Sustainably?

large pit mine surrounded by roads and other infrastructure

Mountain Pass mine in California is the one energetic rare earth mining and processing facility within the U.S. Photo: Tmy350

To limit the worldwide temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C or near it, all countries must decarbonize—cut fossil fuel use, transition to zero-carbon renewable energy sources, and electrify as many sectors as possible. It would require huge numbers of wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles (EVs), and storage batteries — all of that are made with rare earth elements and demanding metals.

The weather critical to the energy transition include the 17 rare earth elements, the 15 lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium. While many rare earth metals are literally common, they’re called “rare” because they’re seldom present in sufficient amounts to be extracted easily or economically.

Rare earth element table. Image: Ivtorov

Elements corresponding to silicon, cobalt, lithium, and manganese will not be rare earth elements, but are critical minerals which can be also essential for the energy transition.

Supplying these vast quantities of minerals in a sustainable manner shall be a big challenge, but scientists are exploring quite a lot of ways to offer materials for the energy transition with less harm to people and the planet.

Demand is growing

The demand for rare earth elements is expected to grow 400-600 percent over the following few many years, and the necessity for minerals corresponding to lithium and graphite utilized in EV batteries could increase as much as 4,000 percent. Most wind turbines use neodymium–iron–boron magnets, which contain the rare earth elements neodymium and praseodymium to strengthen them, and dysprosium and terbium to make them immune to demagnetization. Global demand for neodymium is predicted to grow 48 percent by 2050, exceeding the projected supply by 250 percent by 2030. The necessity for praseodymium could exceed supply by 175 percent. Terbium demand can be expected to exceed supply. And to satisfy the anticipated demand by 2035 for graphite, lithium, nickel, and cobalt, one evaluation projected that 384 latest mines could be needed.

China once supplied 97 percent of the world’s rare earth elements. Government support, low-cost labor, lax environmental regulations, and low prices enabled it to monopolize rare earth metal production. Today China produces 60-70 percent of the world’s rare earth elements and can be securing mining rights in Africa. The U.S. produces a bit over 14 percent and Australia produces six percent of rare earth elements.

In 2018, the U.S. was 100% depending on other countries for 21 critical minerals. After China halted exports of rare earth elements to Japan in a dispute, many countries became concerned concerning the political and economic implications of depending on one market and commenced developing their very own rare earth element production. The Biden administration has prioritized the event of a domestic supply chain for rare earth metals and demanding minerals.

Mining’s environmental impacts

Mining often causes pollution of land, water, and air, spread of toxic wastes, water depletion, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and social disruption. Despite the proven fact that it’s subject to federal and state environmental regulations, metal mining is the primary toxic polluter within the U.S.

It’s difficult to mine rare earth elements without causing environmental damage due to how they’re extracted. One method involves removing topsoil, then making a leaching pool where chemicals are used to separate out the rare earth elements from the ore. The toxic chemicals can seep into groundwater, cause erosion, and pollute the air. One other technique is to drill into the bottom and use PVC pipes and hoses to pump chemicals into the earth. The resulting mix is then pumped into leaching ponds for separation, creating the identical environmental problems.

lake surrounded by hills

A tailings pond in Butte, Montana. Photo: James St. John

As well as, because rare earth elements are sometimes found near radioactive thorium and uranium, the waste left after rare earth elements are separated from the ore—tailings—comprises chemicals, salts, and radioactive materials. Tailings are frequently stored in ponds which might leak and contaminate water resources.

The Harvard International Review reported that mining to provide one ton of rare earth elements leads to nearly 30 poundsof dust, 9,600-12,000 cubic meters of waste gas including substances corresponding to hydrofluoric acid and sulfur dioxide, 75 cubic meters of wastewater, and one ton of radioactive residue—2,000 tons of toxic waste altogether.

The world’s largest rare earth element mine, Bayan-Obo in China, produced over 70,000 tons of radioactive thorium waste which is stored in a tailing pond that has leaked into groundwater.

satellite image of dark craters in a brown landscape

Bayan Obo mine in China, the world’s largest rare earth element mine. Photo: Squishyhippie

The soil and water in Baotouin Inner Mongolia, China— considered the world’s rare earth capital—is polluted with arsenic and fluorite attributable to mining. This has caused skeletal fluorosis and chronic arsenic toxicity within the population. In Jiangxi Province, which was also polluted by rare earth element mining, experts say it could take 50 to 100 years to scrub up the damage and restore the environment.

Mining for other minerals corresponding to cobalt (needed for EV batteries) is polluting as well. The extraction process releases sulfides into the air and water, forming sulfuric acid. This acidic water can pollute streams or leach into groundwater. One mine within the Idaho Cobalt Belt that extracted cobalt, silver, and copper ore contaminated the realm and a Salmon River tributary; it’s now a Superfund site.

How can we supply the energy transition more sustainably?

With the growing demand for rare earth elements and demanding minerals, mining practices that harm the environment will likely proceed, if not increase.

“The pressure is such that that the very first thing that may be disregarded and marginalized are the safeguards with a view to fast track the method—environmental safeguards and social safeguards,” said Perrine Toledano, director of research and policy on the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, a joint center of the Columbia Climate School and Columbia Law School. “We all know that there’s a number of pressure occurring in some countries, in Africa and elsewhere, meaning that the governments may not have time to make use of due process. So that may set us back on sustainability.”

Fortunately, researchers are working on ways to make mining more sustainable or unnecessary. Listed here are some examples —  most of that are still experimental and never yet ready for large-scale application.


Quite a lot of labs around the globe are taking a look at ways to place biology to make use of in mining. Cornell University scientists are developing “biomining,” programming microbes to provide organic acids that leach rare earth elements from ores or recycled e-waste. They’re studying which genes are the very best at bioleaching, then forcing mutations on those genes to make the microbes much more efficient. Researchers at Harvard are using bacteria from marine algae on a filter, then pouring an answer of several rare earth elements through it. The bacteria absorb all the weather. The filter is then washed with solutions of various pH balances, each of which enables different rare earth elements to detach. In Germany, researchers are using latest species of cyanobacteria to soak up rare earth elements from mining wastewater or recycled e-waste. This method may be used even with low concentrations of rare earth elements.


Chinese researchers are using electrical currents to free heavy rare earth elements — those with high atomic numbers like dysprosium and terbium — from ores. The brand new electrokinetic method creates an electrical field above and below the soil, which improves the efficiency of the leaching in order that lower amounts of chemicals are needed. The tactic extracts more rare earth elements than traditional mining and pollutes less.


If soils are wealthy in nickel, chromium, and cobalt, and lack key nutrients, they could not give you the chance for use for food agriculture, but they may be mined. Agromining, or phytomining, cultivates “hyperaccumulative” plants which can be in a position to absorb and store minerals and metals from the soil of their plant parts.

grainy photo of small shrubs growing in an industrial area

Some plants — like these poplar trees growing in an area contaminated by trichloroethene — can clean up contaminated soils. Photo: US DOE

In France, scientists are cultivating hyperaccumulating plants to reap nickel, a critical component of batteries and renewable energy technologies. After the plants are harvested, they’re dried and burned. The resulting ash is richer in nickel than any ore. It’s washed, then nickel is extracted by an acid at a hot temperature; the answer is then filtered to remove the ash and get well the nickel. The general process uses significantly less energy than traditional mining, and can be used to decontaminate polluted soils, making them fertile enough to grow crops.

Through the years, researchers have discovered about 700 such plants around the globe, and more are being discovered and bred to enhance their metal-absorbing capacities. Most accumulate nickel, but others have been found to soak up thallium, zinc, copper, cobalt, and manganese.

“Up to now the technology has been available for small scale application,” said Toledano,  adding that  it’s a way for local communities to earn income and for artisanal miners to mine more sustainably. But some corporations, like startup GenoMines, hope to scale up these methods.

Substituting materials

One strategy to cut back the demand for rare earth elements is for manufacturers and product designers to engineer products that use less or no rare earth elements, or to switch rare earth elements with latest or different materials. For instance, BMW and Renault have made a few of their EVs without rare earth elements. While this may increasingly make batteries less powerful, cars which can be mainly driven in cities may not need as long a battery life. Recently Tesla announced that its next generation of electrical motors would use no rare earth elements. Furthermore, since 2017, the corporate has reduced its use of heavy rare earths in its Model 3s by 25 percent.

Scientists at Northeastern University are developing a substitute material for rare earth magnets called tetrataenite. Tetrataenite is just present in meteorites, but researchers try to recreate a process that took nature thousands and thousands of years by rearranging the atomic structure of the fabric’s nickel and iron components within the lab.

The scientists have a $2.1 million grant from the Department of Energy to know how magnetic materials fabricated from “non-critical elements”are created in nature.

Researchers on the Critical Materials Institute of Ames Laboratory are also studying magnet substitutes. They’ve developed ways of predicting which materials have the potential to be made into magnets. They discover those with some attraction to a magnetic field, then add alloys to show the materials into everlasting magnets. The scientists found that this process could make types of cerium cobalt (cerium is an abundant rare earth element) able to substituting for neodymium and dysprosium utilized in the strongest rare earth magnets.

What about recycling e-waste?

The UN Environment Programme estimated that over 53 million tons of e-waste were generated in 2019, including $57 billion value of raw materials laced with rare earth elements and precious metals corresponding to platinum, gold, and silver. Recycling these invaluable elements and metals could reduce the quantity of mining that shall be needed. For instance, in response to the Union of Concerned Scientists, recycling could help meet about 30 percent of the longer term demand for neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium. Nonetheless, a 2018 study found that only about one percent of rare earth elements are recycled from the products that incorporate them. Japan has been recycling its e-waste for rare materials since 2010. The U.S., second to China in producing e-waste, only recycled 15 percent of its e-waste in 2019; in contrast, Europe recycled 42.5 percent of its e-waste the identical yr.

Recycling is finished either through acid leaching to separate out rare earth element oxides and salts, heating and melting the metals, or using electricity to separate the materials — hence, recycling has its own environmental impacts. Researchers are exploring latest methods corresponding to ultrasonic leaching and bio leaching.

But e-waste recycling stays hampered by insufficient infrastructure, and expensive and inefficient collection processes.

“For e-waste, to begin with you wish the gathering infrastructure and it has not been properly developed, and you wish incentives for the producer to be obliged and mandated to retrieve the electronic waste,” said Toledano. “If, firstly, the producer knows that there shall be some obligation to get well the buyer goods then it would start designing the product in a way that’s recyclable. In Europe, there’s this related concept that you have to be mandated to develop electronics that will not be designed for obsolescence to limit the waste. The circular economy [where all resources are recycled and reused] is about avoiding waste in the primary place before you go into recycling, because recycling is way more technology-intensive and expensive.”

The magnets in EVs and wind turbines could possibly be recovered and recycled relatively easily, but because they’re designed to last a few years, it would be many years before there are enough recycled magnets to satisfy the growing demand. There are, nonetheless, corporations preparing to recycle the batteries from the primary generation of retiring EVs. For instance, Canadian Li-Cycle Corps is constructing its third facility to recycle lithium-ion batteries, and there are dozens of latest recycling battery projects initiating around the globe.

Purdue University researchers have developed an revolutionary and cheap approach to recycle coal ash to get well rare earth elements. Coal ash is as wealthy in rare earth elements as some ores, say the scientists. They’ve discovered a latest approach to separating out rare earth elements from other impurities, using materials which can be inexpensive and efficient. If the technique may be scaled up, it could theoretically get well invaluable materials from the 129 million tons of coal ash the U.S. produces annually.

Mining today and tomorrow

The MP Materials Mine in Mountain Pass, CA is currently the one rare earth producing mine within the U.S. MP Materials goals to create a whole supply chain for rare earth elements, but still sends its ore to China, which continues to dominate the world’s rare earth element processing.

Niobium, which has the potential to make batteries last more, scandium, titanium, and other rare earth elements may soon be mined in Elk Creek, Nebraska. Many locals there feel it’s their patriotic duty to host the mine so the U.S. can develop its domestic supply of rare earth elements and minerals. Other mines within the works include a site in western Montana near the headwaters of the Bitterroot River, a renowned trout fishery. The U.S. Critical Materials Corp, claims the realm has the “highest-grade rare-earth deposit” within the U.S., holds seven square miles of mining claims within the Bitterroot National Forest, and has begun exploratory activities. In southeastern Wyoming, an Australian company, American Rare Earths, believes it has discovered the most important known rare earth element deposit in North America. This company’s goal is to eventually construct a processing plant for the ore that may use latest, less environmentally harmful methods.

artificial pond

Lithium mining uses a number of water in evaporating ponds like this one in Nevada. Photo: Ken Lund

The biggest lithium deposit within the U.S. in Thacker Pass in Nevada has been mired in controversy. The deposit sits on sacred Indigenous land, and the tribes say they weren’t properly consulted. Nevertheless, after a federal court denied the Indigenous group’s requests for an injunction, construction on the mine has begun. Piedmont Lithium is mining lithium in North Carolina and has received a grant of $141.7 million from the Department of Energy to develop a second facility in Tennessee. When each facilities are operational, the corporate expects to quadruple current domestic lithium production.

Under the ocean and in space

Deepsea mining could soon be given the go-ahead, because the International Seabed Authority is working on finalizing regulations for mining the ocean floor of the deep sea. Nauru Ocean Resources Inc., a subsidiary of a Canadian metals company, desires to mine polymetallic nodules from the ocean floor between Hawaii and Mexico. These nodules contain the cobalt, nickel, copper, and manganese essential for making batteries.

rocky sea floor

Nodules in the ocean floor of Pacific. Photo: Philweb

Collecting them would require large machines that scrape the ocean floor, generating clouds of sediment and potentially disrupting marine ecosystems. Some experts say this might jeopardize the ecosystem services provided by marine microbes, the idea of the food web and the ocean’s ability to store carbon, before scientists even understand the total extent of their advantages. A latest report by Fauna & Flora International, a conservation organization, says that deep sea mining would cause extensive and irreversible damage.

But Toledano maintains that the science about deep sea mining is unclear.

“The science that would tell us that some a part of it will not be dangerous will not be getting a number of coverage, because everyone is absolutely scared to go there,” she said. One expert who worked on a big ocean mineral survey that also assessed the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining told her that there will not be a number of life at that depth. Furthermore, the nodules may be retrieved without digging, so the creatures that live within the sediments might not be greatly affected. Germany, France, Spain, Chile, Recent Zealand, Costa Rica, several Pacific Island nations, and others, nonetheless, have called for a ban on deepsea mining until the impacts on the marine environment may be fully assessed.

Because the environmental impacts of mining land and the ocean floor grow, space mining could develop into a viable and more sustainable option. Greenhouse gas emissions wouldn’t matter in space, and there could be no ecosystems to wreck, though mining would damage pristine environments. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, signed by 113 countries, says that space is free for exploration and use by all countries, and that no nation can claim ownership to celestial bodies, but it surely’s not clear how this could apply to exploiting resources on the moon or asteroids. The UN has formed a gaggle to develop principles for the exploration and exploitation of space resources.

Regolith, the soil on the moon’s surface, comprises quite a few invaluable elements, including silicon needed for solar panels and computer chips, iron, magnesium, aluminum, manganese, titanium, neodymium, and platinum group elements. Earth has a greater abundance of rare earth elements, however the moon could also hold rare earth elements in low concentrations.

illustration with astronauts standing in front of a moon colony

An imagined lunar mining facility. Photo: NASA/SAIC/Pat Rawlings

Plenty of corporations are exploring lunar mining, and AstroForge, an asteroid mining startup, is planning to launch two missions this yr to explore mining asteroids which can be thought to have abundant platinum group elements.

Space mining would still have some environmental impacts on Earth’s atmosphere, but much lower than mining on Earth itself. In 2018, researchers at University of Paris-Saclay in France calculated the greenhouse gas emissions from rocket launches, the combustion of rocket fuel, and reentry into the atmosphere. To mine a kilogram of platinum from an asteroid would lead to 150 kilograms of CO2 being released into Earth’s atmosphere, while producing a kilogram of platinum on Earth would generate 40,000 kilograms of CO2.

Getting needed resources more sustainably

Each political parties agree that the U.S. must increase its domestic supply of rare earth elements and demanding minerals. The mining industry is capitalizing on this by lobbying for relieving environmental reviews and regulations. But in reality, this is strictly when policymakers, mining corporations, and all green technology makers have to be developing ways to make sourcing materials for the energy transition more sustainable.

Because mining is local, it has big impacts on local climate resilience and quality of life, and mining has often taken place where people have less power to object. More sustainable mining signifies that local stakeholders should give you the chance to weigh in on potential mining projects. The communities that shall be affected should have free prior and informed consent, a principle protected by international human rights standards.

Governments should support research and development into products that use lower amounts of rare earth elements or that may substitute scarce resources with abundant ones. As well as, policymakers should create incentives to encourage the event of more sustainable techniques for extraction and processing, and the recycling of e-waste. Imposing a tax on mine waste would also provide an incentive to develop ways to cut back pollution.

Toledano believes the important thing to creating mining more sustainable is developing the circular economy—an economy that goals for zero waste and pollution by keeping materials, products, and services in circulation for as long possible.

“The circular economy has an extended approach to go to properly function in the worth chain of minerals and materials, but it surely goes to be a standard environmental solution within the sense that ultimately, you’ll be relying less on virgin extraction,” said Toledano. “We’ll never cover all our needs with the circular economy, but we are able to still make a number of progress.”


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