By Poornima Apte
The increasing focus on solutions to climate change is presenting us with an ethically challenging dichotomy: the green technology products that are being pressed into service often need to be manufactured with rare earth elements. These embrace yttrium and the 15 lanthanide elements including lanthanum, ytterbium and lutetium.
At the same time, rare earth materials are not easy to mine and present their own complications. How then do we work our way around this problem? The answer might be nuanced but increasingly crucial to explore as manufacturers of electronic goods confront these supply chain challenges head-on.
While smartphone demand from China might have decreased slightly in recent months, the clamor for high-tech electronic devices is still impressively high. Market intelligence provider IDC predicts that the overall market for smartphones will reach a whopping 1.57 billion units in 2022.
Cellphones and a host of other electronic devices lean on rare earth elements in their circuitry and for their speakers. Phone vibration is powered by neodymium and dysprosium. While it’s true that smartphones use rare earth elements, the actual quantity in each is very small, amounting to a little over a gram. But it is the sheer scale of the demand, combined with the difficulty in obtaining these materials that makes sourcing a significant problem.
Rare earth elements are used in many other electronic goods such as computer memory, cameras and rechargeable batteries. Clean energy operations involving hybrid and electric vehicles and even wind turbines are also powered by rare earth elements.
The challenge with these elements is that they’re difficult to extract either because they’re found in very low concentrations and/or mining for them involves the release of toxic materials into the groundwater. The refinement process for rare earth metals uses toxic acids, often in a multi-stage process, which need to be carefully disposed of otherwise they can lead to severe environmental pollution.
What’s more, the mines for rare earth extraction often work under exploitative conditions exacerbating the many challenges with access to these precious elements. China has
Given the challenges, there are ways that companies can source and use rare earths responsibly so the supply chain logistics might present fewer wrinkles over time.
- For one thing, companies can accommodate easier design and repair of existing devices. The right to repair movement is fighting planned obsolescence. Allowing customers extended windows of opportunity to fix devices instead of having them replaced every few years will milk the most out of every device. This might not be a popular strategy with manufacturers but worth evaluating in any case.
- Companies can research ways in which products can be manufactured with fewer rare earth metals. Toyota, for example, is exploring how to use less expensive cerium in magnets instead of the rare earth neodymium.
- Companies can encourage recycling and use recycled elements in manufacturing. Worryingly, only about one percent of rare earth metals are recycled today. The reasons for that are complicated. For one thing, in most places, there’s no easy curbside pickup such as there is for paper or plastic. Second, the design of devices itself is such that extraction of recyclable elements is difficult. If the supply chain accommodates easier recycling and invests in using recycled elements in turn, it can make a difference in how rare earths are sourced in the long term.
The seemingly insatiable appetite for electronic devices across the world has led to an increasing demand on precious rare earths. Despite the challenges that this global situation presents, manufacturers are exploring many ways in which they can source these materials both efficiently and ethically.