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Conflicting Rare Metals in Technology
Andrei Clinciu Article AUthor
Andrei Clinciu
  • 2018-08-07T20:18:00Z
  • 10 min to read

This article started by trying to answer the question "What are the components used in building smartphones and modern technology and how do they impact the world?"
This actually led me to a veriy interesting research opportunity. I was sure there was something interesting going on.
The deeper I researched the more I found out and eventually figured out it's a very complex subject.

The main reason for this research was Project 3 Researching and Presenting. This is a speech project for Toastmasters. The 7 minute speech timeframe made me do everything to the point otherwise I would have had a huge article. Note that the speech was even shorter than this article since I had to make a point instead of just providing information. This is one of the great things about Toastmasters.

I wanted to do a follow up on my blog post about the Mobile and Tablet landscape, a failure polluting the world with shiny new crap.
This time going into how this technology is built. I was sure to find disconcerning information and indeed what I found was rather sad.
I've done my best to minimize this article as much as possible while keeping the jist of it intact. At the end of the article you will find all my references and sources including some books about Rear Earth minerals/Elements.

Technology is wonderful. We can all connect to eachother and save time, do research and lead a happy life.
We are truly living ina dream world where technology is making life easier.
Yet, technology isn't making everyone happy and the easy life is only for some.

We all know that most smartphones aren't made to last and I've detailed this in my previous blog post.

No company is interested in this since profits are the main point not reusability.
The real problem comes when there are 1 billion people buying a new smartphone, tablet, TV, etc every 1 to 2 years.

This should start to make us wonder, what is actually going on before a product is created and what goes on after it dies.

Most of the components we rely on for our day to day technology are built by using small portions of 17 rare earth metals called lanthanide elements.
Also abreviated Rare Earth Elements REE. Give Wikipedia a try and you'll find out what each one of them is used for.

Did you know that these rare earth metals are only the byproducts of certain energy expensive processes?
You take some raw ore from special mines. You crack it a refinery using sulfuric acid and other complex chemical processes then the needed minerals are extracted.
The name "rare" comes from the fact that only a portion of 3% to 9% of the ore contains such minerals.
Some of the 17 elements are not really rare since thy exist in quite an "abundance" in the earth's crust. Cerium is almost as abundent as Copper. While Terbium and lutetium aren't that abundent anymore.
Promethium is the scarcest of all.
The problem is that the portion of raw minerals extracted can go even lower than 3% which makes the process extremely expensive.
The process is extremely water and energy intensive. Requiring 49 megawats of energy per day in some factories. Enough energy is used to power 50.000 homes.

I won't talk about the dangers that the occur during the separation process since this is a problem that in itself would take a whole article.
The leftover debris after the spearation of the ores also contains highly radioactive elements such as thorium and uranium.
Most of the radioactive elements aren't secured away properly and there have been many incidents when entire villages have been poisoned beyond return.
Many of the inhabitants of Kuantan, Malaysia have endured great hardships including death tolls due to cancer and many disabled children.

Yes, each time we use a gadget that uses REE even if we buy it from a reputable electronics company we are never quite sure if they in turn bought it from reputable mining and processing corporations.
Management's role is to enhance profits, so they may skim environmental protection to give themselves and their stakeholders greater bonuses. This is something to be expected from the consumerism worldview we live in.
Integrity should be the main point, yet it's not. There are cases when the ores are extracted from as far as Australia and exported to 3d world countries where it's processed due to the lax laws.

This is everyone's problem and the only way to solve it is by education. But what happens when education only comes through TV and Smartphones? Give it a thought.

These 17 rare earth metals are used in much more than just smartphones and tablets.
Whole industries use those powders from light control in glass to mega magnets.
Hybrid and electric cars contain tens of KG of those elements. Solar cells and even wind turbines use large amounts of those elements too.
Neodymium is extremely useful in the Green Energy industry. For example 1.5 megawat wind turbines require around 350 KB of neodymium.
One of the problems of Green Energy is that it isn't quite as green as one would expect.

The only real "green energy" is produced by thermoelectricity and nuclear energy. Having said that I'm sure I will get some frowns from the green energy fanboys.
This is true solar panels and wind turbines use more energy for their creation than they produce in their whole lifetime. Not to mention the pollution produced by their creation.
I am a proponent of using green energy however the fight should start with reducing consumption AND reducing pollution at the same time.
People need to focus on getting out of the chains of consumerism and forcing companies to produce less and produce with recycling
Take for example the extreme cases when countries/cities blocked the usage of plastic forks/knives.
Or when nordic european countries including Germany decided to tax the end consumer (!!) until they bring back the plastic recepients of water.
This is a good way to recycle if you think about it, tax the end consumer who has nothing to say and do with the processing of plastic.
Why not tax the creators and force them to create and reuse the components?
Eh? Think about it from a different perspective for a second. All throughout history the end consumers - the low and mid income class - where taxed for the benefits of the rich.
No, I won't go into socialistic talk. The rich are rich because they've found ways to be. The problem is not the founder of a company but the people in between those managers who handle everything else.
This is why leadership and management together with ethics should be taught in schools since the age of 7.

Now let's talk about something more pleasant: Children.
Did you know that there are other minerals which are considered conflicting minerals? They also are used in most of our day to day technology. Conflicting minerals include cassiterite (for tin), wolframite (for tungsten), coltan (for tantalum), and gold ore.
Andrei you said we where going to talk about CHildren!
Yes. Children are used to help mine conflicting minerals. You've heard of children working in mines like slaves, right? Good. Then you know that there are also those who join a sort of "militia" to fight against the poverty and exploatation. Other children given guns to shoot at innocent people and children.
Divide et Impera wins again.

Don't worry, somewhere in 2017 Apple said it wants to stop using those rare metals and even the conflicting ones.
It's considering alternatives but isn't sure when those alternatives are going to be or what to use instad.
You see, those conflict minerals and the rare earth minerals are not only rare but they're currently irreplacable.
Apple however, like other conglomerates, wants to improve their public relations.
We all know about Apple's child slave factories. Nothing is new about the suicides in China. What is less known is that most of the technology we use is built in the same fashion.

So yes, each time you buy a product form such a big company you too are responsible for it's ethics.
Ah but who cares about ethics, I mean people want the shiniest and best of the iTMakesMeFeelGreat(tm)

Let's talk about Recycling. Recycling worldwide is a catastrophe. There are only 4 countries in europe that have a recycling rate of above 50% for household garbage.
Current technologies can recycle gold, copper, aluminium and other well known metals.
The problem comes that there aren't really good enough technologies to recycle the small amounts of rare metals in tablets or smartphones. Sometimes even 50 mg to 100 mg of multiple REE's are used which makes it difficult to recycle properly.
Specialized recycling occurs for components like huge industrial magnets or certain types of batteries which contain larger quantities of neodymium/
Since recycling activities require huge amounts of energy and money too few entities are interested in doing it properly.

As of 2013 less that 1% of REE entered the recycling loop. REE have among the lowest recycling rate. Only HALF of REE elements are being or are capable of being recycled.
Even if you pay taxes for your electronics within the EU and even if you go to a central collection place there is no certainity that it will be recycled.
Cécile Remeur states that "a significant part of electronic products are sent outside of the EU where they might not be dismantled properly to reocver REE or being disposed in a environmentally friendly way."

There is also some good news. The US and the EU have signed some treaties back in 2012 to regulate some conflicting minerals. This means that companies will only be allowed to sell their products or import minerals if they can prove they've been using confilict free minerals!
One problem is that the regulation will take it's effect in 2021. The treaty only covers GOLD, Tin, tungsten and tantalum.

No other rare earth metal or conflicting mineral. They might have forgotten to include Cobalt which is used in battery creation. Children die for cobalt. Yet again, who cares?

It's also interesting to look at the recycling rates for each component.

The Solutions

We have 17 rare earth elements extremely usefull for our technology. The extraction process is extremely energy intensive and produces side effects. No recycling what so ever.

I've found that hydroelectricity is the most green energy of them all. Followed by surprise surprise nuclear energy. This was a shock. As a planet we will need take this into consideration if we really want a green environment.
Storing the radioactive waste can be done in a better way than the wastes of rare earth minerals are currently stored and it could prove to be even better.

What can we all do to solve these problems? Should we wait for someone else to regulate this?
The government is only going to regulate things when it's too late. It's time for each and every person do to something. Just a small change can have great benefits.
It's the butterfly effect.

What YOU can do is talking to friends to write letters to big companies to stop creating crap and actually making it last longer.

Do you really need a new smartphone?

Instead of buying a tablet or a smartphone think if a laptop or a computer wouldn't be a better choice. Computers have a longer life span and can be repaired much easier.

Thinking about buying a new computer? How about a 2nd hand refurbished workstation with extra warranty?

If you still need a smartphone then go after smartphones or tablets that are known to last longer and using them for longer periods of time.

Remember: Reusing appliances leads to real recycling.


Info about the speech

As for the speech, I've been working for over one month on it trying to fit my ideas into 7 minutes. I pondered wether I should do 2 or 3 different speeches on this topic.
The thing is I also want to talk about other things during my speeches which I find more interesting.
Another issue is that each speech would need a powerful ending which in itself can be quite difficult to create such a call to action when my goal is to bring information.
Doing a 15 minute speech could be better but would this count as 2 speeches?

I ended up going only after some aspects of the topic, much less than the info I've provided in this article.

Some interesting images you might want to take a look at






See all the articles on

Rare earth elements and recycling possibilities - Cécile Remeur - 2013 - Library of European Parliament

Cotton, S. Lanthanides and Actinides. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Emsley, John. The Elements. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1998.

Heiserman, D.L. Exploring Chemical Elements and Their Compounds. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: TAB Books, 1992.

Lide, D.R., ed. CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. 74th ed., Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1991.

Rare Earth Elements: A Review of Production, Processing, Recycling, and Associated Environmental Issues - United States Environmental Protection Agency



Rare Earth Elements - Purification, Separation and Recycling - Hugo Royen and Uwe Fortkamp, IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute 2016

Recovery of Rare Earths from Electronic Wastes: an opportunity for High Tech SMEs - Study for the ITRE Commitee European Parliament


Potential Human Health and Ecological Risks of Production, Processing, and Recycling of REEs


Rare Earth Elements—End Use and Recyclability


Extra articles

Toxic Radioactive Waste from Factories https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/11/rare-earth-elements-iphone-malaysia/


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Andrei Clinciu
Andrei Clinciu

I'm a Full Stack Software Developer specializing in creating websites and applications which aid businesses to automate. Software which can help you simplify your life. Let's work together!

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