CO2_2016 - page 42

Chimica Oggi - Chemistry Today
- vol. 34(2) March/April 2016
KEYWORDS: Green chemistry, innovation, materials, sustainability, recycling, electronics.
This article gives a brief overview of challenges in the use of rare earth elements. Solutions to address
geopolitical and sustainability concerns are being developed by green chemists all over the world.
Universities, national research labs and businesses alike are seeking more environmentally friendly methods of rare earth extraction or
entirely novel approaches to achieving functions similar to those provided by rare earths.
Innovation and opportunity:
Seeking uncommon solutions in rare earths
Slowly but surely the world is waking up to the reality and
consequences that come with a disposable tech culture. In
May 2009,
The Atlantic
revealed “clean energy’s dirty little
secret,” the story of how green technologies are currently
made possible through the use of rare earth elements (1).
Just last year, the BBC featured an article detailing the
disturbing conditions in and around an Inner
Mongolia rare earths processing factory (2).
While the efforts of journalists and scientists
seeking to raise awareness about the
environmental and geopolitical
issues surrounding rare earth
elements have not inspired broad
action, many different groups are
seeking sustainable solutions.
Despite their name, these materials
are not especially “rare;” certainly, many
of them are more abundant in the Earth’s crust
than commonly used platinum group metals. The
challenges surrounding rare earths have more
to do with their geographic concentrations and the
difficulty in separating the desired elements from the
ore in which they’re bound.
To add to the physical challenges of obtaining these
materials, politics and global economics play key roles in the
world’s supply. China has the largest concentration of rare
earths in the world, enabling the country to exert significant
influence on the rare earths market. Last year, the World
Trade Organization determined that China was violating
international trade agreements with its export restrictions (3).
The fact that the U.S., which has struggled to compete with
foreign rare earth prices, filed the claim demonstrates the
scale of these concerns (4).
Despite the challenges of mining and processing rare
earths, society’s growing dependence on them – for
everything from texting to national security – means
avoiding them is no straightforward task (5).
This is where
green chemistry can play a key role by re-imagining the
processes and chemistries involved and innovating towards
more sustainable solutions. All over the world, chemists
and engineers are seeking – and finding – ways to make
sure that people throughout the world have access to
technology that enables a higher standard of living, and
for many years to come.
Because of the market’s uncertainty associated
with the distribution of rare earths, businesses
have good reason to seek alternatives to buffer
themselves against sudden price changes.
Companies such as Honda, Dell and Solvay are
just a few that are innovating and seeking more
sustainable ways of using rare earth elements or
developing alternative approaches to delivering
similar functionality (6).
Designing for recovery and recycling can cut down
on the amount of rare earths a company needs to buy (7).
The Electronics TakeBack Coalition promotes green design
and recycling of electronics (8). That’s the route Dell is
taking (9). The theory is that by building products such that
rare earth-containing components are easily identifiable
and removable, the likelihood of the materials being either
collected and reused increases. Likewise, car manufacturer
Tesla teamed up with Umicore to get as many rare earth
metals as possible back from their electric engines (10).
Partnerships that enable more sustainable approaches while
reducing operating costs are certainly a win-win.
While some companies look downstream for solutions
like recycling, others are investigating opportunities for
improvement closer to the beginning of the process.
American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute
, 1155 16th St. NW,
Washington D.C., 20036, United States
Ashley E. Baker
Bastnaesite from Colorado
(Image Credit: Rob Lavinsky, via Wikimedia
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