If you were asked to name a few rare elements off the top of your head, you might be tempted to list precious metals like gold, silver, or platinum. After all, these shimmering treasures have been the stuff of legends and dreams for centuries, and they are often associated with rarity and luxury.
Turns out that there are elements out there, called "rare earth elements," that are not so rare after all. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey has turned our understanding of these elements on its head, revealing that they are, in fact, quite abundant in the Earth's crust.
What Are Rare Earth Elements?
So, what exactly are rare earth elements? Well, they are a group of 17 elements, including scandium and yttrium, that are often found together in nature. These elements have some remarkable properties that make them essential in a wide range of modern technologies, from smartphones to wind turbines to electric vehicles.
Among the rare earth elements, praseodymium, neodymium, terbium, and dysprosium are the real rock stars, as they play crucial roles in producing strong permanent magnets used in many of our high-tech gadgets and green energy solutions.
What they found is nothing short of fascinating. The study delved into what is known as "crystal abundance," which essentially measures how frequently these elements appear in the Earth's crust.
The results were surprising - rare earth elements are "almost in the same order of magnitude" as some other common elements like zinc and copper. Yes, you read that right. Thus, these so-called "rare" elements are not all that rare in terms of their abundance.
Why Rare Then?
So, why the misleading name? Well, it all comes down to a little thing called accessibility. While rare earth elements may be relatively abundant in the Earth's crust, they are not easily extractable, unlike elements like iron or aluminum. This is where the rarity factor comes into play. It is not so much about how much of them exists. But rather how tricky it is to get your hands on them.
So, to add another layer of complexity, the extraction of rare earth elements can have significant environmental consequences. Many traditional extraction methods involve using harsh chemicals and generating substantial amounts of waste.
This has led to concerns about the environmental impact of mining and processing these elements. Especially, in countries with lax environmental regulations.
How Important Are Rare Earth Elements?
The importance of rare earth elements in our daily lives cannot be overstated. They are the unsung heroes behind the screens of our smartphones. The magnets that power electric vehicle motors. And the key components in the wind turbines that harness clean energy.
So, this brings us back to the four rare earth elements mentioned earlier: Praseodymium, neodymium, terbium, and dysprosium. These are the MVPs of the rare earth element family. Praseodymium and neodymium, in particular, are vital for making the powerful magnets used in electric vehicle motors.
Likewise, terbium and dysprosium are no less essential. They are used in the production of high-performance magnets and in various other applications.