Everyone recognizes the value of common metals such as iron, copper, and aluminum. However, there is an essential class of metals that is important in our modern technology. Minerals in this category are called rare-earths, and they include members with lesser-known names such as neodymium.
These rare-earth metals are the cornerstone of our modern society, and they also have particular effects on global politics. Their relevance means that they deserve to be better understood by everyone.
Abundance Of Rare-Earths
Despite their name, rare-earth metals are common. Even the least abundant rare-earth metals are present in amounts hundreds of times that of gold. Many of the rare-earth metals are nearly as universal as metals we consider ubiquitous, such as lead.
What makes rare-earth metals unique is that they are difficult to extract from the ground, despite their abundance. In other minerals, their deposits tend to cluster together into concentrated regions, facilitating ore extraction. In contrast, rare-earth metals are present in more diffuse concentrations in the ground. They tend to occur with other rare-earth metals, and they are notoriously difficult to separate and purify into usable grades.
Because of how difficult it is to extract rare-earth metals, they tend to be present in small supply. Their scarcity in the market, as well as their usefulness in electronics, means that they usually command high prices.
Rare-Earths In Technology
Rare-earth metals are necessary for most electronic components. They have unique mechanical, electrical, and magnetic properties that make them suitable for many technological applications.
A typical example is the use of neodymium in hard disk drives. When alloyed with other metals, neodymium can create strong permanent magnets. These magnets are used in hard drives to encode and read the information on the disk. The written data is present as a magnetization pattern on the disk, and only neodymium magnets are powerful enough to alter and recognize these patterns.
Rare-earth metals make up only a small fraction of the devices that contain them. Nevertheless, most electronics require rare-earth metals and will not function without them. The absence of rare-earth metals can set back human technology by decades.
The Politics Of Rare-Earths
Due to the difficulty of extracting rare-earth metals, only a limited number of places can produce them in economically significant amounts. Up until the late 20th century, the US was the leader in rare-earth production. After those years, China’s production capacity snowballed. Today, the majority of the rare-earths are mined and processed in China. Japan and the US are the other significant producers of this vital resource.
The recycling of electronics to recover rare-earth metals is still limited. Since China has substantial control over the global supply of rare-earths essential for electronics, the country can use rare-earths as leverage. For example, China could reduce its export quotas during a trade war, causing the price of rare-earth metals to skyrocket. This action could force other countries to concede.
While rare-earth metals may seem obscure, they are a force to reckon with in the modern world. The general public underappreciates these minerals, and everyone should take some time to learn more about them.