Rare earths metals often go by the name green tech metals because their unique magnetic, luminescent and catalytic properties have led to their incorporation into most “smart” technologies. Yet, rare earths are not rare in nature, they’re just very hard to find in heavy concentration, making their extraction both extremely expensive and environmentally dangerous.
Rare earth elements are often found alongside deposits of other precious metals, like gold and copper, and radioactive materials, like uranium and thorium. Processing rare earths poses significant hazards to human health and the environment, such as the production of large amounts of acidic wastewater, radioactive waste residue, toxic gases, and dust.
Over the next decade, the demand for precious metals and rare earths in the United States is expected to significantly increase in order to meet state and federal targets for widespread clean energy adoption. In 2013, the U.S. Congressional Research Service reported that the global supply of rare earths was 133,600 tons per year in 2010, with global demand in 2015 expected to reach 210,000 tons per year. China provides over 95 percent of the world’s supplies of rare earths, while other precious metals are available more widely. The rising demand for rare earths will likely be met by new mines in South Africa, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Laos. New rare earth mines are also proposed for Canada, Greenland, Australia and the United States.