It’s Friday. It’s 5th July. I’m Anthony Day and yes it’s another Sustainable Futures Report. Welcome to you all - welcome to an increasing number of listeners all over the world.
This time I’m following up on rare earths - a topic I touched on a few episodes ago. Last month I attended a lecture on this as part of the York Festival of Ideas. I'll start by summarising what I learnt, but I subsequently had the opportunity to meet the presenter, Dr Alice Courvoisier, and the rest of this episode is a recording of our conversation. There is a full transcription of the interview on the blog. Thanks to my patrons whose support makes this possible. You'll find the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report as always. You can find out about being a patron at patreon.com/sfr.
Rare Earths appear as Rare Earth Metals or Rare Elements and there are about 60 which are used in medical and defence industries as well as the whole range of electronics. While these minerals are relatively abundant they are not necessarily easy to extract. The CRM Alliance recognises 27 of them as critical raw materials and the British Geological Survey manages the SOS Minerals and SOS Rare projects.
An example is neodymium which makes powerful permanent magnets, typically used in wind turbines and electric vehicles. A 2 g magnet can lift 2 kg. Neodymium corrodes rapidly and is not generally recycled.
Significant quantities of hazardous waste are associated with the extraction of rare earths and 90% of the world’s production comes from China which is more relaxed than other nations about environmental controls. Indeed, fear of liability for pollution led to the suspension of rare earth extraction in the United States for some years. Mines have now been reopened including the Mountain Pass rare earths mine and the Red Dog Mine in Alaska. This latter site emits some 350 kg of toxins annually and is surrounded by tailing ponds which will need to be maintained in perpetuity. Materials removed in the course of mining and dumped in spoil heaps are open to the weather which may break them down and release other forms of pollution. The town of Kotzebue, 80 miles south of the Red Dog Mine which produces zinc and lead, is the most polluted community in the United States.
Lithium is well known as a component of batteries. Much of this material is extracted from brine on Bolivian salt flats. The process damages the health of the workers, pollutes the water and destabilises the water table.
Tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold may in some cases be easier to extract, but these are the so-called conflict minerals where warlords, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, fight over their supply. The big users, Apple, Samsung, Google, Nokia, Huawei, Sony and the rest all claim to avoid conflict minerals but once they have travelled down the supply chain, been mixed with minerals from other places and processed into components it’s near-impossible to know where the original materials came from.
Anyway, as I said, I caught up with Alice Courvoisier in a coffee shop a few days after her lecture and asked her to tell me more. Dr Alice Courvoisier teaches Mathematics in the Department of Electronic Engineering at the University of York. Working with future engineers has sparked her interest for ethical and societal aspects of science and technology. She is a member of the Science and Technology Studies Unit (SATSU) and blogs at: ethicsinstem.blogspot.com.
We ended up with a very wide-ranging conversation.
Anthony: Well, Alice you work in the department of Electronic Engineering, so why are rare-earth metals of concern to you?
Alice: Because they're used in a lot of high technologies really, and especially in what we label as green technologies and anything that has to do with ICT, where there's a lot of electronics involved. So we've learned to use all those fancy materials that 30 years ago we didn't have any use for.
Anthony: I see. You mentioned there were about 60 of them, although you didn't actually cover all of them in the lecture that we went to.
Alice: No. So, the terminology is quite complicated. Rare earths, there's I think 17 of them. There’s the lanthanide series plus -- scandium and yttrium, I think, the ones that are just above them in the periodic table. These are what we call rare earth elements.
Now, rare metals is another type of classifications and it depends where you look. So it's something quite different. But what I mentioned is that we use a lot more of the elements of the periodic table than we used 50 years ago, really.
Anthony: Yes. I think the major points that you made were, first of all, they're rare, that's why they're called rare. When you find them they're very difficult to extract because they're not found in their pure form, they're found in compounds, aren't they?
Anthony: And I think all the materials that you spoke about are recycled less than 1%?
Alice: That's right. So there's a few things. So, rare earths are actually not that rare in terms of abundance on the Earth's crust. But they're a lot more difficult to extract because, as you said, they're in composite materials and also, because they've got very similar chemical properties, they're very interchangeable. So even if you manage to separate the rare earth from the compounds, you need to separate them from each other, which involves a lot more -- I mean I don't know exactly what kind of procedures they use to do this -- but it's a lot more energy and material consuming to do that.
But for example, in terms of abundance, the elements that are the least abundant are like the platinoids, like platinum and those metals. But Neodymium, which is the one that's used to make very powerful magnets, as far as I remember it's as abundant as copper, for example in the earth's crust. But it might not be amenable that easily to extraction.
Anthony: Right. Okay.
Alice: So that's one of the differences. And the recycling, yes, recycling is very poor, but mainly because we use materials and metals in forms that are so much more mixed up and alloys, that it takes a lot of energy to actually break that up. I mean you think about copper wire, just remove the plastic, you're back to the copper. You think of an electronic printed circuit board, it's a lot more complicated.
Anthony: Yes. But, there's a risk I suppose that if you actually take an electronic circuit board and you process it to extract the gold for example, you may destroy some of the other....
Alice: That's right. So I don't know what else they're able to, you know, in the modern recycling processes, how they're able to extract of all the stuff or if they're just focused on one element and move from there. That I've no idea what the state of the art is.
Anthony: You mentioned the Fairphone and that is a modular mobile phone. You said that it was originally designed in order that people could avoid using conflict minerals, because some of these materials that we talked about come effectively from war zones, although the supply chain tends to blur exactly where they came from.
So the Fairphone has that objective, but the Fairphone is also modular so that individual parts of it can be replaced to extend the life. But do you know whether they've designed it to the extent that they can actually get individual materials out?
Alice: No, it's too complicated. Yeah, no, this is quite, I mean, I wouldn't know how they would manage to do something like that.
Anthony: So this is the difficulty. Because we are buying billions of electronic devices every year. And you could argue that it's fashion to some extent?
Alice: Yes, a lot.
Anthony: Yeah. So what do we do? What do we do? You said that the production of these materials is doubling every 15 years, I think, is that right?
Alice: Yes, well at the minute because consumption is increasing exponentially, also because of the need in emerging countries, where sometimes they actually don't have the infrastructure for landlines, so mobile phones have kind of leap-frogged the need for landlines. But also, it's not just a fashion thing, it's the pressure of the companies that are upgrading the software so the hardware needs to be upgraded, and all these kinds of things.
I mean, a friend of mine had a computer and the printer and when she upgraded the software on the computer, which needed to go to the next supported version, it couldn't talk to the printer anymore. So those kinds of things that were not helped by companies really.
Anthony: Yeah, yeah. But I just wonder how realistic that is as a problem, because I mean I've got computers, I've got phones, my newest item is four years old. The others are six, possibly eight years old. And there are constant software updates and they all continue to work and talk to printers.
Alice: Maybe it's not an Apple.
Anthony: Mine's an Apple.
Anthony: Oh yes, all my things are Apple, yes, yes. But I fear it's planned obsolescence. You know that phrase, yes? Yes.
Alice: Yes, yes. But the reason... I haven't quite looked at that in much detail yet, but in the European law, they're trying to put the right to repair, so that the objects are made so that they can be opened and things can be replaced. And they're trying to put that into the legislation.
Anthony: Of course there's a big cloud on the horizon because a large amount of this material comes from China...
Alice: This is true.
Anthony: -- and there is a trade war brewing, and that could presumably be a very, very significant bargaining chip.
Anthony: I think you mentioned also that they're beginning to mine these materials in the States again?
Alice: That's right, yeah. I mean especially, I mean it's because...
From a book written by a French journalist that I've read, there was a mine in California that was mining rare earth elements called the Mountain Pass Mine. But they had environmental problems and so they had to shut down their operations, I think in the late '90s, as far as I remember. And then same thing with a French company, everything was put to China because the Chinese had the cheap labor and they didn't mind the pollution at the time. So then China ended up with 95% of the monopoly on rare earth element production.
So after that, other countries realised, oops, this is not brilliant, because they're used in all of our electronics and obviously defence stuff as well, for those people that care about high tech weapons. So they want to secure their supply chains. So they ended up reopening the mines, whether they've changed their production methods so that it's more environmentally friendly, I have no idea. But mining and environment doesn't go well together.
Anthony: Well, indeed. You spoke about the Red Dog Mine. You also talked about Kotzebue, the town Kotzebue?
Alice: That's right.
Anthony: Eighty kilometres from the mine and yet the worst polluted city in the United States.
Alice: Yeah. Last summer I was working in Wales, in the path near the Rheidol Valley and there was a sign about how they were managing the pollution still from the lead mine that had been closed I don't know how many years before. So these things just stay.
You know, that's something I've understood preparing this, is we think of the rocks we blow up just as a pile of rock, but it's not a pile of rock anymore, it's not the same thing. It's waste in the sense that it's been blown to pieces, so there's a lot more surface area of the rug that's exposed and can react with the air, etc. So it can release elements such thorium, for example, in the case of rare earth mining, that is radioactive, leeches into the elements, when it was safely stored within the rock that we blew up.
Anthony: So you're starting when they do these excavations and they create these spoil heaps, it reacts with the atmosphere and the weather and presumably can pollute the water table and all sorts of things.
Anthony: It's things we just do not think about it. We just do not know about. But we are locked in aren't we? We're locked into an electronic age. And even if we say, right, well we're going to keep our phones and our computers longer, we can't, I don't think, turn around and say we're going to do without them, can we?
Alice: Well, I don't know, but at some point we might not have a choice.
Anthony: Why? Because...
Alice: Because we run out of material, because we run out of energy, because...
Anthony: Right. Is it likely that we will run out of some of these materials?
Alice: Well, Indium, which is not a rare earth element, but it's labeled as a rare metal, I've seen various estimates which can go down to 30 years. So in matters of decades and Indium is what allows your touchscreen to work.
Anthony: Okay, okay. But cannot be recycled?
Alice: Well, it could be recycled. But again, the process is under development and not on an industrial scale that I knew of at the minute.
Anthony: Yes. Do you know of anybody who is researching recycling of these materials?
Alice: Well, there are a lot more now. I don't know about in this country and in Europe, but in the States, they do a lot of researching and some people managed to find a process that recycles rare earths from hard drives, shattered hard drives. And in Japan they do a lot of research because they don't have the resources.
Anthony: Yes, yes. And this is academic research or commercial research?
Alice: Yeah, academic. Well, there's probably some commercial research as well because people are aware of those issues.
Anthony: Yes, yes.
Alice: So it's a difficult problem, but I mean we need to get out of this ridiculous growth and consumer society thing, which just leads us absolutely nowhere. And something that I didn't mention, but somehow flat screens everywhere, we could do without them without harming our lifestyles really.
Anthony: You mean flatscreens in the street and all sorts of things?
Alice: Yeah, exactly. And in cafes. So I was in the cafe at the university where they have the flatscreen with the news, and they were talking about 5G coming up in London. So we were all of us presented as consumers who would be so much more happy if we can download textbooks in like seconds rather than minutes. Whereas to be honest, most of us wouldn't care. All we want is clean air and clean water. That's not part of the equation. They're happier selling us circuits, rather than the important stuff.
Anthony: Yes, yes, yes, yes. I think you also mentioned that you're a bit skeptical of electric cars because we would just end up with electrified traffic jams, instead of petrol powered ones.
Alice: Yeah, exactly. I mean that's one aspect. But that's the aspect that we can't imagine a life without cars. And people who have cars and have been relying on cars for forever, they just can't imagine. If you see the adverts with cars, if it's not with a woman, it's with the nice landscape that you're going to escape to. It's not the reality, but it's so tied in our minds with that kind of aspect of freedom to go wherever we want, whenever we want, that if you remove the car then you feel like you remove the freedom. So psychologically we're kind of locked into this, and obviously then physically there's all the infrastructure, all the habits and the way we work. But I'm not saying electric cars won't have a role to play, I'm just saying that replacing all the cars we have by electric cars is just an impossibility.
Anthony: Yes. So what shall we do? What should we do and what's your solution?
Alice: Sobriety, that has to come first before we...
Anthony: Expand on that a bit? Sobriety?
Alice: Well, use less, consume less. Because there's a lot of stuff we use and we do that we don't really need. I mean, do we need wind power to power advertising screens? Do we need to have those mini Christmas lights at night, do the shops need to have their lights on at night?
Anthony: I mean if you read the press reports, Mrs May has said that we must aim for zero carbon by 2050 and far as I understand it, the way to it is economic growth. I have to read that in more detail to see if that's exactly what she said. But is that the way or not?
Alice: I'm not an economist, but no, I honestly don't think it's the way. I think we need to simplify our lifestyles. When they're talking about economic growth, I think my understanding of it, which might be wrong, but that's my understanding, is that they need to generate surplus so that the money generated can be reinvested into the green strand of things. But you look at the industrial strategy, "green" means electric cars, automated transport, which again, we should all be replanting gardens. That's what we should be doing.
Anthony: You think the current green philosophy is doing exactly what we're doing at the moment, but just doing it in a different way.
Alice: Yeah. I mean just simplifying the way we live, consuming less, using less and holding those companies to account that are destroying the planet. Because, I mean we're responsible in the sense that we are here now able to do something, but you know, we're all locked into this ridiculous system that is just destroying the planet, there's no other way to put it.
Anthony: How realistic do you think it is to change the attitude of people who for the last generations have been brought up to believe that consumerism is the way forward, that standards of living must always rise, and which generally means more things to be bought and all that sort of thing. How are we actually going to be able to create the social change to create the changes that you feel we need?
Alice: I don't know, is the answer.
Anthony: I think that's my reaction as well. I don't know either.
Alice: The first thing is we need to tell the truth. You know, I think that Extinction Rebellion have a point with that, it's telling the truth. And it's not just about climate change, it's about telling the whole truth, telling how our culture has basically completely raped the world and meet everyone believe that this was the only way forward to something called "progress" in big inverted commas. And I think we have realised that that's it. We're done. It's the end of our civilisation, it cannot carry on. We can't refer to some kind of technological mythology that in the future we'll be able to do this.
And I think we need to sober up on that aspect as well, not just supply chain or lifestyle, but sober up and stop thinking we're the bees knees as westerners and decolonize. Just say, look guys, we've made a mistake, tell the Chinese and the Indians who are trying to emulate us, saying, look, it's not the way forward, we are wrong.
Alice: And I think that has to be the first step. It's a journey. I've lived in that system, I've been educated in that system. It took years to kind of realise that actually -- no.
Anthony: Do you think Extinction Rebellion is the way forward?
Alice: I don't know. But I think they've done an amazing job at raising awareness of the climate crisis and of engaging a lot of people that were struggling to find where to put their energy. And there is an event coming up in York...
Anthony: Indeed, on Friday.
Alice: -- on Friday, yeah.
Anthony: I'll be there.
Alice: Which will be well worth attending. I won't be there myself because I'll be in Wales already, but I know the people who have been working on it and it's pretty amazing all the work that's been done behind it. But as a movement, I think they need to learn a lot because they are very new. But in the ways they've managed to put the energy of the people who have been working on these topics for years together it's quite fantastic.
Anthony: Yes. Well, thank you very much for your thoughts on this. It shows that we start with rare earth metals but it's part of a much wider perspective and a lot of challenges we've got to deal with.
Alice: That's right. There was one thing I was... Because I was thinking about the Congo again and it's not so much rare earth they're mining as tin and tungsten and tantalum and these things, which could be labeled as rare metals. There is child labour, there are child soldiers, with all those issues around this. But, in a way I don't know what is the best way to tackle that. I mean Fairphone have built their phone based on willing to raise the awareness of conflict minerals. But I wonder whether a better way to tackle the issue would be to work on weapons exportation -- which is a completely different topic. But if they're fighting, it's because we're selling them weapons. So there's the two ends of the spectrum and I don't think that end can be disassociated from what's going on.
Alice: So it's not just an electronic supply chain problem, it's the whole rotten system -- let's create conflict so we can get the minerals for cheaper and sell them the weapons.
Alice: Sorry... I added that, but feel free to...
Anthony: Thank you very much indeed. I'll stop it there I think.
Dr Alice Courvoisier with some profound and challenging thoughts. Thank you very much for that.
I hope you find the Sustainable Futures Report challenging and interesting, and I’m always keen to have your comments. In fact, if you’re a patron I’m setting up an online discussion so that you can join in and share your ideas. Contact me via the Patreon site - patreon.com/sfr - if you would like to take part.
That’s enough for this week. There’s a whole raft of stories I could have added and I’m sure there will be even more next week.
I’ll be here - I hope you will.
Until then that was the Sustainable Futures Report and I’m Anthony Day.
Bye for now.
La guerre des métaux rares - Gillaume Pitron