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The Not-So-Rare Earth Elements

The Not-So-Rare Earth Elements

Credit: Jurii
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lanthanum-2.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

[Figure1]

The 17 rare earth elements are essential for making much of what the modern world values. Cell phones, head phones, wind turbines and solar panels – we couldn’t live without them.

Why It Matters

  • The rare earth elements (REEs) are not that rare, but are rarely in high concentrations.
  • The rare earth elements are hard to extract and refine from ore rocks.
  • The only REE mine in the United States is the Mountain Pass mine in California.
  • 95% of REEs used worldwide come from China.
  • China has few or no environmental regulations and cheap labor. REE mining is polluting their air, water and land.
  • Credit: G?ran H?glund (Kartl?sarn)
    Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kartlasarn/6344898761/
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    A mine in rural China [Figure2]

     

Explore More

With the links below, learn more about the rare earth elements. Then answer the following questions.

  1. In what products can you find magnets made from rare earth elements?
  2. Describe in some detail what caused the Mountain Pass mine to close.
  3. What are three ways that pollution results from mining REEs in China?
  4. What problem results from the fact that REEs are rarely found in high concentrations but are dispersed through the rock?
  5. What does the Mountain Pass mine do with contaminated wastewater and mine tailings?
  6. What can you do to reduce the environmental and political impact of obtaining rare earth elements from the ground?

Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Jurii; Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lanthanum-2.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: G?ran H?glund (Kartl?sarn); Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kartlasarn/6344898761/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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