For thousands of years, they lay dormant in the soil until suddenly, they became the driving force behind a technical revolution. Smart phones, laptops, touch screens, wind turbines, hybrid vehicles: they all need rare earth materials.
Among the first to recognize this were the Chinese. Today China mines an incredible 97% of all rare earth minerals extracted worldwide. The Chinese government makes good use of this monopoly: recently, it cut production by about two-thirds. Within days the prices of some rare earth metals shot up by 1000%. However, the Chinese also have to deal with the downside of rare earth mining: Environmental pollution, destroyed landscapes and radioactive residues, as rare earth metal deposits are usually laced with radioactive minerals and are extremely difficult to refine.
Because of the scarcity of rare earth deposits, the sky-rocketing prices on the international commodity market and the environmental problems associated with mining and processing, scientists around the world are looking for new, better ways to source these minerals. We follow researchers as they drill for new deposits in Europe and Australia, we see how they try and find new, more environmentally friendly ways of processing the materials, we discover how they try and recycle them out of old mobile phones and computers – and we reveal how physicists and chemists are working on ground-breaking new materials that could soon replace rare earths completely – a fascinating glimpse at cutting-edge research that could make our green technologies of the future even greener.
Mica: it's the common ingredient that gives make up its luminosity. But unknown to consumers, it's often mined in dangerous conditions by children as young as eight.More info