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What is the future for rare earth minerals?

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Five very rare earth minerals are used in the technologies we take for granted in our modern lives. They are naturally occurring resources that cannot be recreated in a lab. Some of the minerals are used in the field of healthcare. Some are essential in the production of electronic devices and, most recently, in the building of electric vehicles (EVs). However, experts say these minerals will not always be available. So, what happens when the source runs out?

About rare earth minerals

As the stars in our universe evolve, they eventually explode as the result of extreme heat and pressure. The resulting stardust falls to earth to form what we recognize as rare earth minerals. Some of these minerals exist in very small quantities. The five rare earth minerals are silver, tantalum, lithium, gallium and indium.

No doubt you are familiar with silver, but you may not know that it is frequently used in the manufacture of small electronic components.

O tantalum or tantalum. Chemical element used in industry, used in metal alloys.

Tantalum is a heavy metal that is highly resistant to corrosion. It is ductile and can be fashioned into very thin, tough wire. Tantalum is important in the medical field as it is used in both bone implants and pacemakers. Because of its energy-storing capabilities, it is used in the making of computers and mobile phones.

Indium conducts electricity and is used for solar panels, LEDs, flat-panel display screens and photovoltaic technology.

Like indium, gallium can be extracted from zinc, tin, bauxite and silver ores. In its liquid form, gallium is used in solar panels and screens. It is also available in compounds needed for semiconductors.

Male hand holding piece of liquid gallium close-up

Lithium has received its share of the limelight lately. In addition to its use in electronic devices like smartphones, it is used in the making of batteries, including the large, heavy batteries that enable EVs to run. However, the cost of mining plus the associated environmental issues will likely limit the availability of lithium and other rare earth minerals at some point in the not-so-distant future.

Seeking alternatives

Since rare earth minerals are in short supply and the cost of mining is high, researchers are working on alternatives. For instance, the carbon allotrope graphene is lightweight and transparent. It exhibits conducting properties that match those of indium. Researchers have used graphene in a supercapacitor that can charge EVs quickly. In another example, one Dutch company manufactures smartphones containing seven modules that allow a broken part to be replaced, saving customers the expense of having to buy another phone. The repairable smartphone even comes with sustainable packaging.

The benefits of e-recycling

Throughout the world, people generate 50 to 60 million tons of electronic waste (e-waste) every year. When this waste corrodes, its toxic materials infiltrate the soil, float into the atmosphere or enter nearby water bodies, all of which threaten public health. But e-recycling electronics like our TVs, computers and smartphones enables the non-renewable minerals in these devices to begin a second life, often in another form. At Urban E-Recycling, the proper disposal of electronic devices and their components is a daily activity. We will continue to pursue the benefits of e-recycling even when researchers discover viable alternatives to the use of the five rare earth minerals: silver, tantalum, lithium, gallium and indium.

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Mother Nature doesn’t want your old computers but we do. 

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