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High-Tech’s Crucial Rare Earth Elements Are Already Running Low

Rare earth minerals are used to make smartphones, flat-screen televisions, drills, electric vehicles, compact florescent bulbs, wind turbines, and military equipment. But now China, the world’s nearly-sole provider of rare earth elements, is warning that modern lust for high-tech toys and tools has caused the supply of these materials to plummet. According the a recent official [...]

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Rare earth mining near Longyan, Fujian Province, China

Mining operations near Longyan, Fujian Province, China. Photo: © 2012 Google

Rare earth minerals are used to make smartphones, flat-screen televisions, drills, electric vehicles, compact florescent bulbs, wind turbines, and military equipment. But now China, the world’s nearly-sole provider of rare earth elements, is warning that modern lust for high-tech toys and tools has caused the supply of these materials to plummet.

According the a recent official briefing released by China’s State Council,

After more than 50 years of excessive mining, China’s rare earth reserves have kept declining and the years of guaranteed rare earth supply have been reducing. The decline of rare earth resources in major mining areas is accelerating, as most of the original resources are depleted.

With China currently providing upwards of 90% of the global supply of rare earth elements, the news could spell trouble for an ever-blossoming tech industry. The New York Times, however, reports that China’s numbers need not necessarily be taken at face value.

The white paper says China has only 23 percent of the world’s rare earth reserves and has already depleted the most accessible reserves. But the United States Geological Survey a year ago raised its estimate of Chinese rare earth reserves, to half the world’s supply, compared with a third of the world’s reserves.

Various local and provincial governments across China have announced numerous discoveries of large rare earth deposits in recent years, yet Chinese officials have scarcely changed official estimates for nationwide reserves, rare earth industry experts point out.

China’s current rare earth output will inevitably wane, but the past few years have seen scientists pushing into increasingly dangerous or difficult territory in search of a fresh supply. And the companies that need these materials are figuring out how to guard against shortages: Honda just announced it’ll start recycling rare earth, for instance. Serves the world right for starting to depend on a material so scarce its very name warns that it’s bound to run out sooner rather than later.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Devastating Costs of the Amazon Gold Rush 

Just What Is Ytterbium Anyway?

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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