Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Rare Earth Elements: The Limited Resources that Give Life to Our Technology

           If we look at the world, it is apparent that technology runs society. We must ask ourselves this, however: what is running this technology? As a society, we have created a plethora of miraculous devices that seem to adhere to our every technological need and desire. Our daily lives seem to revolve around our Smartphones, laptops, and TV’s, yet we forget that something must be powering these devices. In article on published on March 9, 2011 on CNN, writer John D. Sutter explores the some of the history on the use of certain resources to develop innovative technology. In the early 1980’s, one of the world’s strongest magnets was created by accident. It was made by a very strange “rare earth element” (one of the elements near the bottom of the periodic table) called neodymium (Nd). This strong magnet was the revolutionary force behind the surge of new technology from the 1980’s onward, as this magnet powers everything from cell phones to wind turbines to electric cars.

            The use of rare earth elements like neodymium in technology started to escalate as the use of these elements yielded exceedingly favorable improvements: in the 1960’s, europium and terbium, two rare earth elements, were added to color TV screens to make the reds and greens the brilliant shades we see now. Compact fluorescent light bulbs need a coating of terbium to maintain a bright white gleam. Hybrid cars like Toyota’s Prius each require significant amounts of lanthanum (element number 57) and neodymium to make extremely powerful, light magnets to power the engine of the car. Gadgets like Smartphones, headphones, small laptops, etc., all rely on this neodymium element. This element produces such a powerful magnet that it is the leading factor that has allowed technological gadgets to shrink exponentially in recent years. Even the vibrations in Smartphones would not be possible without this magnetic element.

          Like all rare resources, the rare earth elements are, not surprisingly, becoming increasingly harder to find. The supplies for these elements are very limited; China controls approximately 97% of the mines where rare earth elements are mined and produced, and these minds are hardly abundant enough to maintain our quest for new and exciting gadgets in this technology-dependent world. Scientists are in a race to somehow make a magnet that is even more powerful than the one made by neodymium. They hope that a stronger magnet will alleviate the push for limited rare elemental resources.

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