“I think there's a deep wish for there to be a get out of jail free card.”: Julie Klinger on the past, present and future of rare earths.
In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich talks to Professor Julie Klinger, Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Delaware and author of Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Sub-Soils to Lunar Landscapes.
Michael and Julie begin with an explanation of the uses for rare earths, how they got their name and what makes them so valuable.
They then discuss the environmental and health problems associated with rare earth extraction and why China has become the dominant source for them.
Finally, the conversation turns to how rare earth extraction can be made greener and potential new sources for rare earths.
This is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.
Michael Liebreich: Let's start with the overview. What are rare earths?
Julie Klinger: The term rare earths refers to 17 chemically similar elements. These elements are distinguished by their fantastic magnetic and conductive properties which is what makes them so essential to just about every kind of technology because they enable miniaturization. My favourite rare earth element is neodymium which is a fantastically magnetic element. If you had a neodymium magnet that's the size of a small coin, and you tossed it on your refrigerator, you would need to saw out the door to get this magnet off of it. These magnets are really important in wind turbines, high-speed rail and a number of other transportation and navigation applications.
ML: Why do we refer to them as ‘rare earths’? How rare are they?
JK: Despite their name, rare earths are not rare. The best reason that I can find for why rare earths continue to be called ‘rare’ earths is because calling something rare is a little bit more exciting than calling it by its actual name. If you look at the geopolitics around these elements that certainly would seem to support that analysis. The good news is that the most used elements are pretty common in Earth's crust, about as common as copper or lead. The rarer rare earths, like promethium actually have very limited applications.
ML: Can you talk through the processing involved in extracting rare earths and turning them into something that can be used?
JK: To put it glibly, it's a hot and heavy process. Because rare earth elements are chemically similar, they're actually very difficult to separate. Through much of the 20th century, this was the challenge with respect to rare earths, which is why applications for rare earths didn't really explode until the latter quarter of the 20th century. You've got to liberate the raw material from its mountainous, rocky home, you've got to grind it up, and then you have to subject it to a sequence of roasting, high temperature acid baths so that you're slowly separating the rare earths which you actually want from what's called the parent material. Generally you're looking at 3-4% of the total stuff you dig up is actually rare earths and the rest of it ends up in huge tailing dams. There's a lot of good stuff in there like gold or thorium in the parent material but we currently don't organize our mineral extraction activities to make total use of the stuff we dig up. One company with one focus pulls one thing out of the earth, and the rest just sort of piles up.
ML: What do these mining operations look like?
JK: A mining complex like Bayan Obo can measure about 15 kilometres from end to end and then about five kilometres wide. There are piles of material 50-60 metres high. We're talking about tremendous sums of earth. Some are sophisticated operations with huge mining trucks operated by skilled personnel. There are also ‘artisanal’ mines and black market operations. What accounts for that difference is whether it's a hard rock deposit or a clay deposit. The ones where you have people hauling things on their backs, those were clay deposits. You didn't need heavy equipment or explosives to get the good stuff. Whereas with a hard rock deposit, you do need explosives and heavy equipment.
ML: Where is the real concern here from an environmental and health perspective? Is it the extraction or processing that is the worst?
JK: When I visited Bayan Obo, it was really quite ghastly, I have to say, because I was looking at a landscape that had endured over 40 years of heavy industrial processing without really much regard for social and environmental safeguards. You stand on the edge of these tailing ponds, and you feel like you're looking at the moon. The results of 50 plus years of heavy industrial activity taking place in this 200 kilometer corridor is the proliferation of heavy metals into the general environment. One of the characteristics of Bayan Obo is that it's also very rich in arsenic and fluoride. Left deep underground they don't cause a lot of trouble for people but once they are dug up, and pulverized and released into the general environment then they're transformed into a form that can be absorbed by animal and human tissues. This has created a lot of very specific health problems for people and livestock in the area. A key factor here is actually how well protected your labour force is. So for example if you have protective respiratory equipment, you're much less likely to suffer the longer term consequences of being exposed to pulverized and particularized heavy metals that come up.
ML: Have conditions improved in China recently?
JK: Since about 2015 there's been central government investment in cleaning up these areas. The most badly contaminated sites have been evacuated, and people have been resettled into entirely new cities. Smaller scale mines have been shut down and small and medium operations that were privately run, or were joint ventures have been closed or consolidated into a state owned industry. I've been tracking this via satellite in the past few years because I haven't been able to return in person. One of the things that I've noticed is that the tail pond that was responsible for a lot of the contamination of surrounding agricultural land has slowly been emptied out. I don't know where the material is going, but the footprint is steadily diminishing in a way that's really quite impressive.
ML: Why is the rare earths industry concentrated in China?
JK: The rare earth industry in the West, and particularly in Mountain Pass was running into trouble, they had issues with environmental compliance, and slowly and steadily as China was ramping up production in the 1980s. We remember that the 1980s were a really transformative time: in the West you had the removal of capital controls which made it easier for industries to shop around for lower regulations and tax requirements. At the same time, you had Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China that were opening up to allow investments. This was like a match made in heaven for big companies or heavy industry. It’s not a question of geology. In the United States and Western Canada, there's a number of different places with hard rock deposits. If we talk about monocyte sands or clays, then that brings a whole host of other areas into play.
The rest of the world woke up to our dependence on China for rare earths a little over a decade ago. At that time, there was no production in the US and China was responsible for about 97% of global production. In the intervening years, there's been a number of efforts to diversify global supply chains, such that now China is responsible for about 75% of total global production of rare earth products. In 2018, for the first time since 1985, China became a net importer of rare earths, which meant that China was importing more of the minimally processed stuff than it was actually producing.
ML: How do we ensure that we don't have the same environmental and health problems as we see in China in other countries?
JK: Without policy incentives and the threat of penalties, there's no immediate incentive for companies to make these upfront investments in socially and environmentally superior mining and processing methods. There are various campaigns at the International and inter-governmental level to produce global standards to make rare earth production greener.
There are two very promising developments that I'd like to highlight. The first is the Rare Earth Industry Association, which is headquartered in Brussels, and has members from all over the world including in China. They have developed a peer-to-peer transparency mechanism to verify the origin and environmental practices of those of rare earths. From an intergovernmental standpoint, there's 28 countries that are currently engaged in standards development via the International Standards Organization to improve traceability and sustainability for rare earths.
But there's a deep wish for there to be a get out of jail free card. The rhetoric around extracting rare earth from the moon has died down in recent years, because the economics just don't pencil out. The new interest is deep sea mining, particularly off the coast of small island states. The debate right now is really focused around the question of whether that does constitute a lower environmental footprint. There is a lot of concern around disrupting fisheries and coastal livelihoods. For me, the really compelling question is, from a greenhouse gas emission standpoint. Are we actually better off if we take the deep-sea approach? One of the most important potential sources of atmospheric methane is the ocean floor. One of the reasons that we haven't heard much about this is because there are microorganisms who eat the methane as it percolates up. If we're disturbing that environment and disturbing that ecosystem, we might be unleashing a methane bomb into the atmosphere. But I don't think we should just be comparing terrestrial mining and deep-sea mining, without also taking into account the untapped potential of recycling and reclamation. We have to make waste sexy and exciting. This could get us out of the out of this bind of do we destroy ecosystems on earth or under the ocean? When in fact, we could be thinking, what ecosystems could we be restoring via this reprocessing of existing waste sites around the world?