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The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth

By Keith Veronese
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Rare by Keith Veronese

Rare (2015) sheds light on the common but elusive chemical elements beneath the earth’s surface – elements that play an increasingly important role in the development of modern technology. Get a better sense of what’s really driving the geopolitical struggles between the world’s superpowers, and what a group of rare earth metals has to do with the future of our energy sources, gadgets and military technology.

Key idea 1 of 9

Rare earth metals are actually quite common, but they’re only found in tiny concentrations.

What is rare is always a matter of context and perspective. For example, in nineteenth-century China, it was rare to see someone riding a bicycle; today, however, there are about 430 million bicycles in China, and cyclists are a daily sight.

Similarly, the actual rarity of rare earth metals is a matter of perspective.

The name “rare earth metals” is shorthand for a category of 17 different chemical elements, all of which have odd names that are difficult to pronounce, like cerium, praseodymium, scandium and yttrium.

When these elements were first discovered, people believed they were as scarce as diamonds or gold – hence the name. But in truth some of these metals can be found just about anywhere along the earth’s crust.

In fact, if you were to examine a random sample of soil, you’d probably find as much europium, neodymium, holmium and ytterbium as copper, cobalt or nickel.

So it’s not that rare earth metals are hard to find; it’s that they’re only found in very tiny quantities and it is extremely difficult and costly to separate them from their surroundings. This is why these elements continue to be considered rare, despite the fact that they’re all around us.

These metals exist in such negligible quantities that you could go through tons and tons of soil and come away with only a gram or even just a milligram of one type.

Therefore, in order to acquire enough of these elements to be useful, massive amounts of rocks have to be demolished, separated and sifted in a complicated and ultimately wasteful procedure. To remove the unwanted parts of the rocks, chemicals are used that actually destroy a portion of the elements that are being extracted.

This means that, at the end of the day, you actually get even less of the rare earth metal.

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