Rare Earth Elements Common in Today's Digital Technology


By Patti Dobranski

They may be called rare earth elements, but there is nothing uncommon about them. The avalanche of new technology emerging over the past 20 years has placed these 17 abundant chemical elements before our eyes and at our fingertips as key components of televisions, cameras, computer monitors, electric car batteries and wind turbines. Rare earth elements include 15 lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium. All are metals and were discovered in the 18th and 19th centuries within rare minerals, which is why they were inaccurately labeled "rare earth elements."

Mining For Rare Earths 

Rare earths are found in small concentrations at numerous locations around the world, but China has the lion's share. Consider the rare earth element lanthanum. It contradicts its "rare" classification by being more bountiful than silver or lead. When mining companies starting extracting lanthanum in the late 70's and early 80's, it was set aside because no one knew how it could be used. Today, it is at the forefront of breakthrough technology and is a main component of hybrid vehicle batteries. A key to the continued use of rare earth elements is to improve environmentally-friendly mining methods.

Rare Earth and Green Technologies 

Wind turbines — one of the fastest-growing sources of emissions-free electricity according to a study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — rely on magnets that use the rare earth element neodymium. Neodymium and dysprosium, although not the most widely used rare earth elements, are expected to cause a price hike due to a boost in demand for high-performance permanent magnets. In fact, the MIT study suggests that these popular elements may price themselves out of the market even though they are plentiful. To avoid this, scientists are exploring economical sources for maintaining access to these elements, such as recycling.

Classroom Discussion

  • What two steps must be taken to use rare earth elements efficiently and economically?
  • Can you think of other ways to possibly increase the availability of abundant rare earth elements?