rare earth elements

The Problem with Rare Earth Elements

rare earth elementsRare earth elements represent a conundrum. You could say it approaches FUBAR. Because of them, technology has brought us smartphones, other electronics, and hybrid vehicles. But they are like roses with their nasty little thorns. Getting to them causes some of the worse environmental destruction possible, along with arsenic and other unappealing contaminants in  drinking water sources.

The Good Side of Rare Earth Elements

New research from the University of Copenhagen adds another spin on this complicated story. Chemists have discovered a means to use rare earth elements to detect a lack of oxygen in cells. This condition signals health issues like cancer, the second and fifth leading causes of death, respectively. It’s fair to say that this study represents a significant breakthrough that can speed diagnoses with a quicker detection method. It’s all good.

Then, there are rechargeable batteries. Thanks to rare earth elements, you have a rechargeable smartphone. We have working TVs. All hybrids and electric vehicles operate with them. Oh, and then there is national defense and security. Where would we be without precision-guided weapons or range finders or night vision devices?

The Bad Side of Rare Earth Elements

If only it were all good news! But it’s not. The waste products of mining rare earth elements include the worst of radioactive tailings and toxic acids. Unfortunately, the nasty bits don’t stay in one place. They become mobile in water sources. They can contaminate any organism that comes in contact with them, including crops, livestock, and people.

And if that weren’t enough, some of these materials can accumulate in living tissues. The toxicity only builds up over time. It can lead to a host of negative health outcomes, such as cancer and birth defects. Then, there are the geopolitical considerations. With China producing 95 percent of the global output, you can imagine the implications there—especially as technology finds more and more good uses for them.

This group of 17 elements represents the best and worst. We have the potential to improve the quality of life of the people of the Earth, with a means to reduce the impact of climate change. At the same time, it’s a toxic and volatile solution. The issues surrounding rare earth elements underscore the complexity of environmental issues on many levels. They represent another example of the foolishness of cookie-cutter solutions. As American journalist, H.L. Mencken, said,

“For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

http://exploring.weborgloge.com/By Chris DR

photo credit: X-ray via photopin (license)

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