Magic Fairy Dust and Other Endangered Elements in Electronics

Magic Fairy Dust and Other Endangered Elements in Electronics

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Rare earth elements, the magic fairy dust that makes #electronics capable of doing what they do. from @carol_baroudi
Tuesday, March 31, 2015 - 10:40am

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Much of the miracle around technology has to do with its shrinking size and growing power. The computing power that once demanded large, air-conditioned rooms couldn’t hold a candle to the smartphones we carry around every day. And this miniaturization is central to ongoing expansion and penetration of electronics into every facet of our everyday lives. Because electronics can be teeny-tiny, they can be implanted in our hearts as pacemakers, they can be part of the thermostats in our buildings, and we can carry astronomical computing capability and storage capacity around everywhere without a second thought.

Do you ever wonder, “So how do they do it?” Part of the answer is ultra-strong magnets. The ultra-strong magnetic properties of a group of elements known as “rare earth metals” are part of what makes miniaturization possible. Used in miniscule amounts (because they are so very powerful), rare earth metals have found their way into virtually every electronic usage you can imagine. They’re in hybrid batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines. They’re in lasers, medical imaging devices, smartphones, tablets, headphones, and microphones. They’re in displays, disk drives, nuclear reactors and weaponry, superconductors, catalytic converters, goggles, and cameras.

Rare earth elements are the magic fairy dust that makes electronics capable of doing what they do. And, like magic fairy dust, they’re not so easy to get your hands on. Found in the earth’s crust, and also in the periodic table, these metals are difficult and dirty to mine:

scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium.

Currently, most of the rare earth minerals are mined in China – in 2012, greater than 85% of the world’s production, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Despite growing world demand, China decreased its export quota from last year and has stated that its supplies are dwindling. Recent news that large quantities of rare earths have been found in North Korea may lessen the concern for the reliance on Chinese supply, but this does not close the door on the role of geopolitics in the future of electronics.

Why should you care? And what can you do? My hope is that you’ll begin to understand the actual origins of the electronics you use every day and not take their presence and function for granted. When you’re ready for your next new device, make sure the device you’re shedding gets a new life or can be responsibly recycled so materials can be reclaimed. The materials that go into our devices are finite. No compound used comes from a renewable source. If we want to protect the availability of future devices, we need to get our old devices into hands that will ensure that all recoverable materials are recovered.