Seeking the elements that make modern life possible

“Thank goodness for the lanthanides” is not something I say, but after reading this issue’s special report on the importance of rare earth elements to society, maybe I should.

These unobtrusive metals, which include the chemical elements known as the lanthanides plus two other elements on the periodic table, are essential for making the magnets needed in electric cars and wind turbines, two key technologies for fighting climate change. The elements are ubiquitous in our homes, from smartphone and television screens to earbuds and computer hard drives.

And that’s just a start.

“I became most fascinated by how the rare earths connect us to each other,” staff writer Nikk Ogasa, who wrote about the chemistry of these elements, told me. “It blows my mind that these dull-colored metals have enabled our global internet and satellite communications systems and could one day even give rise to a quantum internet.”

But to keep modern life humming, we’ll need more rare earth elements. They’re actually not all that rare, but they’re mined at only about a dozen sites around the world. Earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling traveled to California’s Mojave Desert last summer to Mountain Pass, the sole rare earth mine in the United States. She spent hours exploring the giant pit with officials from MP Materials, the company that owns the mine, who are hoping to make it part of the first wholly U.S.-based rare earth supply chain, from ore to magnets. Ore from the mine is currently sent to China for processing. “I felt like I needed to see it in order to describe it,” Gramling told me. “It gave me a real feel for what they’re trying to do there.”

Mining rare earths has caused environmental pollution and harmed human health, most notably in China. More demand means more mines and further underscores the need to minimize negative impacts. MP Materials is attempting to lessen those impacts, Gramling reports. But another option for reducing harm would be to extract rare earths from the mountains of consumer products that surround us. That’s also no easy task.

“When you think that we recycle so many other metals, why aren’t we recycling these?” says Erin Wayman, the magazine’s managing editor, who wrote about efforts to develop new ways to recycle rare earths.

The tiny bits of rare earths in a smartphone screen or a magnet are mixed with other materials. Thus the process of extracting rare earths from consumer products isn’t so simple or cost effective. “It’s not like you take an aluminum can and make more aluminum,” Wayman explains. Making the process of recycling these products more economical is an infrastructure challenge, not just a technological problem. “We don’t have a system where you can jut put them in a blue bin at the curb,” Wayman says. It will take both new science and new recycling systems to make it happen. But people in the infant rare earth recycling industry are optimistic that it will happen, and it should, especially as we anticipate a future with more shiny screens and electric cars.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.