Almost all technological products we use daily contain rare-earth metals, from computers and screens to networks, MRIs, batteries, magnets, automobiles, and various types of special optical glasses. They’re also used as a catalyst for oil refining. Because so many rare-earth metals are used in these products, the US Department of Education renamed these commonly found rare-earth metals “technology metals.”

A generic smartphone uses about 16 rare-earth metals alone! With nearly five billion people worldwide using a smartphone by 2020, that adds up to a lot of technology metals being used -- and this is just thinking about smartphones!

Extracting rare earth metals is not only difficult, but it’s also harmful to the environment. With the need for technology metals rising, researchers are trying to find a greener way to extract them.

Rare-Earth Metals Today

While the name can be deceiving, rare-earth metals are actually abundant in the Earth’s crust. Although there are a lot of them, extraction is difficult due to their low concentration in minerals and ores, making them hard to get ahold of. This extraction is done usually through a mining process, which has a negative environmental impact -- including producing toxic wastewater as well as radioactive elements that seep into groundwater.

Finding alternative ways for producing rare-earth metals would not only provide better environmental protection, but it could create smaller price fluctuations due to various import/export regulations. Right now, China produces more than 90% of rare-earth metals and has created limitations and restrictions on exports. If alternative ways to produce rare-earth metals are not found, the future of smartphones and basically all technology is in danger of disappearing and the Earth is in more environmental danger than it already is.

A Greener Way to Produce Rare Earth Metals

Previously, we talked about how scientists at the Idaho National Laboratory, Livermore National Laboratory,  Rutgers University, and UC Davis have reported finding a new way to produce rare-earth metals that can have less of a negative impact on the environment. They used organic bio-acids, such as acids from fruits, as well as byproducts of phosphoric acid production, known as phosphogypsum. As phosphoric acid is widely produced, using its byproduct as a way to extract rare-earth metals is a great option. They found that bio-acids did the best job, compared to various other acids, at separating rare-earth metals most efficiently. By eliminating the long and environmentally dangerous mining aspect of extraction, rare-earth metals can be used with less worry about the damage they can cause.

Another Green Way

Tech companies are aware that smartphone production is harming the environment. In Apple’s 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report, the company mentions its use of rare-earth metals and the environmental impact the process has. Apple has said it wants to use recycled rare-earth metals for its products and “one day extract nothing from the Earth.” Ultimately, the company wants to make products using only renewable resources or recycled material.

Recently, they’ve introduced Daisy -- “the ultimate recycling robot”. Daisy recovers rare earth, tungsten, and Apple-specific aluminum alloys to be used in new products or returned to the market. They’re piloting ways to recover and reuse cobalt from their lithium-ion batteries and the rare-earth metals found in magnets. Read more about Apple’s robot Daisy and their other environmental initiatives here.

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