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Rare Earth Mining Part of ICT Gear Supply Chain

Our e-gear contains many exotic materials. We've looked a how the demand for some - "conflict minerals" - fuels bloody, long-term warfare. The mining of others pollutes local communities. The rare earth neodymium, used in everything from smartphone speakers to datacenter disk drives, is a case in point.

China produces more than 90 percent of the world's supply of rare-earth minerals. A January 2011 Daily Mail article described China's Baotou rare earth mine, a global supplier of refined neodymium.

Hidden out of sight…and patrolled by platoons of security guards, lies a five-mile wide ‘tailing’ lake. It has killed farmland for miles around, made thousands of people ill and put one of China’s key waterways in jeopardy. This vast, hissing cauldron of chemicals is the dumping ground for seven million tons a year of mined rare earth after it has been doused in acid and chemicals and processed through red-hot furnaces to extract its components. Rusting pipelines meander for miles from factories processing rare earths in Baotou out to the man-made lake where, mixed with water, the foul-smelling radioactive waste from this industrial process is pumped day after day…studies carried out five years ago…confirmed there were unusually high rates of cancer along with high rates of osteoporosis and skin and respiratory diseases. The lake’s radiation levels are ten times higher than in the surrounding countryside…

In September 2012, CNET profiled a US alternative, Molycorp. "About 60 miles southwest of Las Vegas, in a mine some 500 feet deep [Molycorp is] trying to harvest rare-earth minerals in an environmentally friendly way, or at least as environmentally friendly a way as a mine can manage...In Baotou, [the waste], which includes slightly radioactive thorium and uranium and other toxic chemicals, goes into the tailings lake. Because it's still liquid, the waste can leach into groundwater, creating environmental hazards. Molycorp's proprietary process presses the water out of the tailings in order to reuse it. What's left is a paste, to which Molycorp adds cement and then lays out in a lined disposal site."

Ironically, the Daily Mail notes that, "A direct-drive permanent-magnet generator for a top capacity wind turbine would use 4,400lb of neodymium-based permanent magnet material."

Baotou mine, Inner Mongolia, China
Double pit surrounded by tailings piles, waste lake at lower left
(image enhanced by SWI)

Conflict minerals

Thanks for helping to make folks aware of the high cost of "greening". The proliferation of mobile devices is another destructive trend which is dependent on conflict minerals. Until we take the entire cost of producing things into account, the cost of depleting the resource, the environmental cost of obtaining the raw materials, and the remediation appropriate to account for this activity, we will continue be in a deficit position relative to reality.

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