Visualizing The Importance Of Rare Earth Elements To Our Digital Lifestyle

Cerium and erbium might not be metals you’ve ever heard of, but once we run out of them, texting and emailing is going to get a lot harder. This infographic breaks down our constant demand for rare earths.

Rare earth metals, a group of 17 chemical elements in the Earth’s crust, are crucial to keeping our society running smoothly–and to transitioning to a clean-tech-driven economy. They’re used in electric car motors, lithium ion batteries, computer hard drives, solar panels, and wind turbines. China is responsible for 97% of global output, but the country is getting cagey about continuing to export the material. The scariest part: We don’t have viable alternatives yet. The infographic below, which comes from Vouchercloud, takes a closer look at the rare earth metal situation.

Get to know these 17 odd-sounding elements (ytterbium, anyone?). They’re more important than you can imagine. And China claims that it’s running out of them, with two-thirds of the country’s supply already mined. This isn’t good, but it isn’t dire either–while China churns out more of the metals than any other country, the country actually only has 23% of the world’s supply. There is no real shortage of rare earth metals, but everyone else needs to start ramping up production, and quick. According to one Department of Energy report, it will take the U.S. 15 years to lose dependence on China for its rare earths.

As we mentioned earlier, rare earths are essential to computing and clean technology. Some more places where they’re found: color TV displays, GPS systems, compact fluorescent lamps, and fuel cells.

Still not convinced that rare earth metals are important? They’re also used in everything from jet engines and fiber optic cables to MRI machines and X-rays.

One solution is to start recycling rare earth metals–something that seems obvious but that isn’t always easy because of the low concentration of metals found in different products. Still, there are some companies (like Hitachi) trying to figure out more efficient ways of recycling rare earths. That won’t be enough, though; other countries will have to increase production. Companies in the U.S., Canada, and Greenland are already starting.

It takes time to scale up mining operations, however, and they have their drawbacks. In Greenland, the rare earth metals lie below ice sheets. Getting at them could endanger the surrounding environment.

So besides scaling up mine production and doing a better job of recycling rare earth metals, what can we do? The DOE is funding a number of projects looking for rare earth alternatives, including a manganese-based replacement for rare earth magnets used in wind turbines and electric vehicles and electric vehicle motors that don’t need rare earth metals to operate.

Check out the full infographic below.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.