Outflows from a pipeline into a "rare earth lake" formed by the cumulative emission in the nearby of Xinguang village in Baotou, Inner Mongolia.
Photo: W. Huan/ChinaFotoPress

06.06.2012

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Lanthanides, or rare earths, as they are usually referred to, have found widespread use in modern technology, also for regenerative energy systems. However, their extraction and processing tends to be a rather messy business, spoiling crop yields and rendering vast expanses of rural and forestry areas barren. Worse still, toxic and radioactive substances from processing dumps and mine tailings have claimed the lives of many locals. Government regulations can at least stamp out especially devastating wildcat mining activities, although government involvement as such by no means implies that all is well with rare earth mining.

Opposition to an Australian rare earth processing plant in Malaysia is mounting just as China’s restrictions on exports of the much sought-after metals threaten to bite. Among the locals, fears of contamination have been fuelled by the disastrous environmental and health record of rare earth processing in Inner Mongolia, and also by memories of the major health scares that a rare earth plant operated by a Japanese firm caused in the 1980s.
 
Rare earths are relied on extensively in modern high-tech equipment. For instance, they are used in cell-phones, flatscreen televisions, rechargeable batteries, magnets, and also solar panels and wind turbines. They also play a role in sophisticated arms technologies. But these metals are not really rare. The problem is to find deposits rich enough to be exploited. China is particularly fortunate in this respect. Although it only has 35 percent of the world’s known rare earth deposits, it accounts for 95 percent of global production.
 
Severe environmental and health concerns
 
The catch in mining and processing rare earths is that it entails severe environmental pollution and health problems.

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