Daily Video

December 15, 2009

Rare Earth Minerals Necessary For Green Future

As world leaders attempt to hammer out a deal about permanent reductions in green house gasses, far away in China, workers toil to process “rare earth” minerals that are necessary for many of the new carbon cutting technologies.

Producing rare earth minerals is a messy, dangerous, and polluting business that offers little protection to the workers. Factories use toxic chemicals, acids, sulfates and ammonia to extract the minerals, ruining the land and forcing local farmers and entire villages to move.

Each motor of a Prius hybrid car contains a kilo of neodymium and each battery more than 10 kilos of lanthanum, all rare earth elements. Wind turbines are seen as a safe, clean energy, but the permanent magnets used to manufacture a 3-megawatt turbine contain some two tons of rare earth. Items you may use like computers, mobile phones and energy-saving light bulbs all contain rare earth materials.

With China currently providing 95 percent of the world’s rare earth, much of the pollution from extraction and manufacturing stays in China, too. But the government is now beginning to restrict its rare earth exports and demand that foreign companies invest and build high end technologies in China.

In this report Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News looks at how critical rare earth is to our future.


“Rare earth is the country’s resource, but small people like us need to eat, too. We live on farming, but the crops no longer grow, and we will go hungry.” Jia Bao Cheng, farmer

“Although China has the largest reserves, we only have 50 percent of global deposits. We are supplying too much rare earth, and it’s not sustainable, so we must restrict export.” Zhao Zengqi, Baotou Rare Earth Research Institute

“I think that, if we don’t get a couple of projects up and running very, very quickly, there’s going to be very severe shortage of rare earths in the world, and all of these clean-energy technologies that we’re legislating and trying to implement through policy changes are not going to be possible.” Mark Smith, CEO, Molycorp Minerals

Warm Up Questions

1.What are some trade-offs you make to try to help the environment? (Do you take shorter showers? Would you pay more for something that was made from recycled materials?)

Discussion Questions

1. What surprised you in this report? What did you learn?

2. How should countries balance the need to reduce green house gasses and the need to reduce the environmental impact of rare earth extraction?

3. What will happen if China declares it will no longer produce rare earth?

4. What kinds of things can you do to be more “green”?

Additional Resources

Read the transcript

As Climate Change Conference Heats Up, Nations Hope to Cool Off Temps

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