Rare earth minerals, also known as rare earth elements (REEs), are a group of 17 elements that form under the Earth’s surface. Their unique chemical and physical makeup allows them to provide magnetic, heat-resistant, and phosphorescent properties that other elements cannot. Because of this, rare earth minerals are essential in the development of the microchips that make up technology and defense systems.
Microchips and Technology Applications of Rare Earth Minerals
The majority of REEs are used as catalysts or by the glass industry to create screens and camera lenses, but they have many other uses. Magnets, for example, are a growing use of REEs with a number of applications like wind turbines and spindle motors for hard drives.
Gallium is one of the rare earth minerals primarily used in the microchips of electronics. Gallium arsenide is a key component in semiconductor fabrication and the creation of computer chips. Computer chips are essential in innumerable devices, appliances, and equipment.
Other technical applications of REEs:
Mining Rare Earth Minerals for Microchips
REEs must be mined and refined before they can be used. The process is difficult. Minable concentrations are uncommon and only found in a few areas across the world. Additionally, REEs only exist together. Extracting the elements is challenging and expensive. The elements are chemically bonded to each other and can also be bonded to the surrounding dirt, rocks, and sediment.
Separating the elements begins by combining the raw material into concentrated chunks. The chunks are dissolved and funneled through hundreds of liquid-containing chambers. The liquids separate the elements based on how they dissolve. This process is repeated hundreds of times before completion.
Issues Involving Rare Earth Metals
Mining brings up environmental concerns such as land degradation, pollution, and negative impacts on wildlife. Concerns also stem from the waste products (tailings) created through the refining process. Tailings can be hazardous and radioactive and yet they are often dumped into local water supplies.
China is responsible for about 95% of the REE processing globally. When they attempted to restrict the supply of REEs, it was a major cause for concern in other industrialized countries. Japan, for example, relies on REEs to produce catalytic converters for the automobile industry, which is the mainstay of their economy.
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused disruptions in China’s rare earth sector, concerns increased. Product shortages filtered down the supply chain and revealed our dependence on REEs.
Technological demands will only increase in the coming years and beyond. To ensure adequate supplies of REEs will be available, the US is exploring other resources. Developing more American-based REE mines, recycling REEs, and finding substitute materials for REEs are efforts in the works.
Effective REE recycling has the most potential benefits. Recycling would decrease the demand for mining and lower the negative environmental impacts. It would also mean avoiding the expensive steps of separating low-value REEs from high-value REEs. E-waste recyclers could recover both precious metals and rare earth metals, offsetting costs and improving sustainability.
Protect Earth’s Resources with Electronics Recycling
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