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Environmental Challenges in Rare Earth Mining

2023

Rare earth elements are essential components of many renewable energy and carbon-neutral technologies, including wind turbines, electric vehicles, and consumer electronics. The United States' only rare earth mine, Mountain Pass, located in California, has seen several phases of operation and closure since its discovery in the 1940s. It was once the world's top source for rare earth elements, but by the late 1980s, China became a dominant player in the rare earth market and offered lower prices. A series of toxic waste spills at Mountain Pass further impacted production, leading to a halt in 2002.

However, with the rise of the green-tech revolution in the 21st century, the demand for rare earth elements increased, prompting the revival of Mountain Pass mine. Mining rare earth elements comes with environmental challenges, as they tend to be scattered in the Earth's crust at low concentrations. Mining involves digging vast open pits, which can contaminate the environment and disrupt ecosystems. The processing of raw ore into usable forms requires large amounts of water, potentially toxic chemicals, and produces voluminous waste.

To address the environmental impact, researchers are exploring ways to reduce the footprint of rare earth mining. These efforts include reducing waste during ore processing, improving the efficiency of element separation, recycling rare earths from old electronics, and recovering them from coal waste. Collaboration with the mining industry is crucial to implement these changes effectively.

In addition to the environmental concerns related to mining and processing, there are also concerns about the potential impact of radioactivity on human health. While there is limited epidemiological evidence on the impact of rare earth mining on human and environmental health, experts emphasize the need for science-based decision-making and accurate information dissemination.

To reduce the need for new mining and processing, recycling existing rare earth materials is advocated as a complementary approach. However, recycling alone may not be sufficient to meet the increasing demand for rare earth elements in the future. A combination of responsible mining practices, efficient use of mined resources, and recycling will be essential to ensure a sustainable supply of rare earth elements for renewable energy technologies.

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