Mining for more information on rare earths

Although the rare earths debate isn’t new, for many of us it’s a fringe topic that, like most political footballs, we don’t get close to. As trade tensions between world powers impact critical supply chains, businesses are paying closer attention to how market monopolies, economic sanctions, and strategic leverage is controlling where technology can go.

Circularity First is digging deeper to uncover what today’s political playground means for lead times, what companies can do to steel themselves against risk, and how IT can play a significant positive role in adopting the principles of the circular economy.

WHAT ARE RARE EARTH ELEMENTS?

Rare Earth Elements (REE) are a group of seventeen chemically similar metals that are naturally located in the ground in low concentrations around the world. Didn’t pay attention in your periodic table lessons?

Like the rock encasing these elusive wonders, we’ll break it down:
Aside from showing off in pub quizzes, why do we need to know about these elements? Well, for a start, we wouldn’t be reading this on our phones without them.

REE have unusual magnetic and conductive properties that perform vital functions in the devices we take for granted in modern living. They are also key to the green energy transition. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and moving towards green energy is a mission totally reliant on rare earth extraction.

ARE RARE EARTHS ACTUALLY RARE?

Journalist Misha Glenny demystifies this in his BBC series The Scramble For Rare Earths, telling us that, since REE can in fact be found in almost every part of the world, ‘rare’ is a misnomer.

But as well as being subject to volatile markets and nation state rivalries, they are difficult to extract and to separate from other metals – chemical processing that, in an unregulated space, carries the risk of significant environmental damage.

Glenny confronts the moral complexity of this, referring to the ecological risk associated with powering the green energy transition at scale as ‘the great paradox’.

WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT RARE EARTHS RIGHT NOW?

Because while world superpowers play politics, the technology world faces another year of supply chain lags. The potential for REE to be safely and ethically extracted and deployed hinges on, among other things, political will. The race between world leaders to out-manoeuvre one another in dominating global resources is a well-trodden path and, despite the world being connected on an unprecedented scale, international relations remain as knotty as ever.

Decades-old tensions surrounding China’s consolidation of REE imports have resurfaced as the US revives its efforts to corner the market. Meanwhile Taiwan, the world’s biggest REE-dependent semiconductor supplier, has formed a working relationship with Lithuania that’s prompted China to curb trade and demand multinationals follow suit. Add Russian sanctions to the mix, and the fact that the occupied eastern part of Ukraine is home to up to half of the country’s unmined REE, and the picture gets messier.

WHERE DOES IT FIT IN THE RARE EARTHS DEBATE?

The global shortage of computer chips and semiconductors brought IT’s reliance on REE into sharp relief. Metals such as neodymium, dysprosium, cerium, and europium have risen in demand as production slows and supply chains bottleneck. Service providers are tasked with navigating these shortages alongside tight budgets, increased customer expectations, and fast approaching net zero targets.

The race for rare earths has significant implications for IT, an industry that accounts for 2-3% of all global emissions and is accelerating. eWaste has been identified as the fastest growing waste stream in the world, with an estimated value of $62.5m and less than 20% recycled.

A long-term outlook is to raise awareness of the enormous value in reclaiming latent REE from products that have reached the end their useful life. Staggeringly, fewer than 1% of the world’s REE are recycled, with the vast majority wasted inside the electrical products we hoard in our homes or closets at work. Others end up in landfill, seeping into soil and water supplies and causing a toxic nightmare for local communities.

Research is currently underway to discover how to extract the resources trapped in some products which were never designed to have components removed or reused, such as Printed Circuit Boards, which have a particularly high embodied carbon impact from the materials used to make them.

MAKE IT CIRCULAR

A proven solution to navigating REE shortages is rethinking our approach to IT. There are fictions and fears to dispel in the IT realm: The fiction that new is best. The fear that remanufactured products means compromising on performance or reliability.

Keeping technology in use for longer through trusted remanufacturing programmes deftly avoids the lead time crisis, saves companies money, and helps them reach measurable sustainability markers.

While linear supply chains struggle and our planet is marred by IT’s heavy contribution to waste, going circular makes sense.

ACT ON IT

Circularity First Group helps organisations worldwide to be demonstrably more sustainable in their use of IT. We know going circular is the smart way to navigate the rare earths shortage, and we have the experience and proven success to guide you through this process.

Leave the political footballers to score their home goals and focus on what you can do right now.

Get in touch to learn how remanufactured technology can support your business aims.
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