If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


Inorganic Chemicals

Podcast: Rare earths’ magic comes at a cost

Stereo Chemistry shares a story from the science-history podcast Distillations

by Kerri Jansen
July 27, 2021


Graphic showing the Distillations podcast logo.
Credit: Courtesy of Distillations/C&EN
Credit: Distillations/C&EN
Credit: Distillations/C&EN

We rely on rare-earth elements to make many essential technologies like smartphones, medical imaging devices, and wind turbines. But how much do you know about where these extraordinary materials come from? This month, Stereo Chemistry is sharing a pair of episodes from Distillations, a podcast from the Science History Institute. In the two-part series, show hosts Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago explore the source of rare earths’ “magic,” the costs of acquiring these elements and what scientists are doing to try to find a way to produce them sustainably.

Find more stories from Distillations on your favorite podcast platform or at

Subscribe to Stereo Chemistry now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The episode transcripts below were provided in part by Distillations.

Part 1

Kerri Jansen: Hi everyone, Kerri Jansen here. Stereo Chemistry is currently on hiatus, and this month we’re sharing a pair of episodes of Distillations, a podcast from the Science History Institute. Distillations explores stories from the intersections of science, history, and culture.

The episodes we’re sharing with you here are all about rare earths, the collection of 17 elements that have become indispensable components in many modern technologies. And to help me introduce this story is C&EN reporter Mitch Jacoby. Welcome, Mitch.

Mitch Jacoby: Hi Kerri.

Kerri: Mitch, what should we know before we dive into this episode?

Mitch Jacoby: Right, well, as we’ll hear in this story, lots of critical technologies depend on rare earths. You’re probably aware that rare earths are used to make electronic components for smartphones, but what you may not know is that they’re also used in medical imaging devices and some green energy technologies like wind turbines. And besides those applications, they’re also used in disc drives, electronic displays, lasers, electric-car motors, and catalytic converters.

These elements are so useful because they have unique electronic and magnetic properties. The Distillations hosts describe them as magical, and I don’t think that’s far off. They’re really fascinating and useful materials.

But getting them out of the ground and into our gadgets is no small feat. And so after we explore the magic of rare earths, we’ll also hear about the hidden costs of rare earths and what scientists are doing to try to find a way to produce them sustainably.

Kerri: Both part 1 and part 2 of this story are now available in Stereo Chemistry’s feed. And if you like what you hear, you can find more great stories from Distillations on your favorite podcast platform or at We hope you’ll check them out.

Mitch Jacoby: I learned some really neat things from this story. Part 1, which we’re about to hear, opens with an interesting story that I actually never heard before. We’ll hear how a Chinese fisherman’s encounter with the Japanese coast guard triggered a global awakening to our dependence on rare earths.

Kerri: And now, without further ado: part 1 of “Rare Earths: The Hidden Cost to Their Magic,” by Distillations.

Alexis: Hello, and welcome to Distillations, a podcast powered by the Science History Institute. I’m Alexis Pedrick.

Lisa: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.

Alexis: In each episode of Distillations we take a deep dive into a moment of science-related history in order to shed some light on the present.

Lisa: Today we’re talking about rare earths elements. And this is a big story, so we broke it up into two parts, both of which available right now.

Alexis: In part one, we’re gonna tell you about the magic—

Lisa: And in part two, we’re gonna tell you about the costs.

Lisa: Chapter 1: The fisherman.

Alexis: On September 7, 2010, a Chinese man fishing near disputed islands in the East China Sea set in motion an international crisis with effects that would be felt around the world. Here’s what happened.

Al Jazeera: Is this the moment of maritime drama which sparked the worst political route in years between China and Japan? A Chinese marked fishing vessel is ordered to stop by Japanese sailors.

Klinger: So the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands have periodically been a source of geopolitical tension between China and Japan for years.

Lisa: The islands are uninhabited. But they’re claimed by China, Japan, and Taiwan. China and Japan have a peacekeeping agreement that says no one from either country is allowed to get within 12 nautical miles of the islands.

Klinger: And if someone did get within 12 nautical miles of the islands, then it would be the responsibility of whichever coast guard was patrolling at the time to escort that person back out into international waters.

Alexis: This is Julie Klinger, a geographer and an assistant professor of international relations at Boston University. The agreement she describes sounds simple enough. But things got complicated for the fisherman.

Klinger: This fisherman had gotten a little too close to the islands. His name is Zhan Qixiong and instead of complying with the routine escort back out international waters. He instead rammed his fishing vessel into a Japanese Coast Guard vessel. And because of this he was detained.

Al Jazeera: The Japanese voices apparently warned that the Chinese captain is turning towards them and they brace for impact.

Lisa: When news of the arrest hit Chinese and international media the part about him ramming his boat into the coast guard, was left out. As was the fact that he was drunk.

Klinger: And so what it actually looked like at the time in September of 2010 was that Japan detained an innocent Chinese fisherman and this was interpreted in China as an act of escalation and so this took on a real, big significance, I think far beyond what the actual incident called for. And so, Beijing was working with authorities in Tokyo in order to secure the release and the repatriation of Mr. Qixiong. Meanwhile, the public wasn’t really hearing a whole lot about this and there were several people who felt like Beijing was not responding appropriately enough.

Alexis: People were angry and some of them decided to take matters into their own hands.

Al Jazeera: There have been nationalistic protests in both countries. In China some have turned violent despite efforts by security forces to keep them under control.

Klinger: But one way that a handful of people decided to teach Japan a lesson was actually by withholding exports bound for Japan. It just so happened that some of these exports were rare earth elements.

Lisa: If you only have a vaguest idea of what rare earth elements actually are, or even if you’ve never heard of them at all, you’re not alone. And in September of 2010 most people around the world were in the same boat. That was about to change.

Klinger: Fall of 2010, the whole world wakes up to our reliance on rare earth elements.

Lisa: Rare earth elements are often called the spices, or vitamins, of industry. Because while we don’t need them in large quantities, they’re in pretty much everything we associate with our modern world.

Alexis: My favorite metaphor is that they’re like yeast in a pizza. You only need a little bit of it, but without it there’s no pizza.

Klinger: Another way to say it is that rare earth elements are essential for both the hardware and the software of life as we know it.

Alexis: They power our iPhones and computers, they’re in wind turbines and hybrid cars, and power windows, they’re in dental implants, x-ray machines, life-saving cancer drugs.

Lisa: That shipment that was held back in China by just handful of people, could have contained anything: but it happened to hold rare earth elements. The essential tiny components that make our modern lives possible.

Klinger: Nobody really knew or even really missed the fact that these shipments of rare earth elements had been held up, until Japan’s customs authority inquired China’s customs authority what happened to the ships?

And so people start asking questions, word gets out that, that you know, some brave Chinese nationals are teaching Japan some humility by reminding it of its economic dependence on China.

Alexis: And then the story sort of took on a life of its own.

New York Times: China surprised governments around the world by halting shipments of something called rare earths

ABC: International concerns soared higher on September 22nd when China stopped all exports to Japan, following the arrest of the Chinese fishermen in disputed territorial waters amidst rising tensions.

Klinger: A lot of people had to learn a lot of things very quickly. First off, what are rare earth elements? Why are they important enough that China would embargo these things against Japan? And why does that matter?

Lisa: People began making obvious but incorrect conclusions. Like, for example, this one:

Klinger: So these things called rare earth elements are being embargoed by China. That must mean they’re rare.

Alexis: And the fact that in 2010 China produced 97% of the world’s rare earth elements led to another obvious, yet incorrect conclusion:

Klinger: Oh China produces the most rare earth elements because China has the most rare earth elements.

Lisa: And all of these assumptions led to a big, frightening conclusion that China was holding the world hostage through its supposed rare earth embargo. That China was engaging in some kind of economic warfare.

Klinger: This was the narrative that blew up overnight. And of course the markets reacted accordingly the prices for certain rare earth elements increased by more than 2,000 percent.

Alexis: The fishing boat incident had worldwide implications.

Klinger: This unleashes a gold rush. All of a sudden everybody is looking for rare earth elements. So there’s a sort of swashbuckling like gold rush sensibility that was really fed by the 2010 crisis.

Alexis: But you’re probably still wondering what this really has to do you. Why should we care so much about rare earths?

Lisa: Like we said earlier, our entire modern world is made possible by this collection of elements—17 in all. 17 elements that are sprinkled in small amounts through some of our most powerful, futuristic, and dare we say it: magical tools.

Alexis: While we don’t need much of them, rare earths are what make the magic happen. They have unusual magnetic and electrical properties that make our stuff faster, stronger, and lighter. And we’ve been coasting along enjoying their magic for a while now. In fact, we’ve come to expect magic. Nothing less than magic will do. And if you’re a scifi and fantasy nerd like me, you already know what comes next. It’s that twist that the evil wizard doesn’t recognize until it’s too late. Magic always comes at a cost.

Lisa: For us, the cost of our magical devices and technology is environmental devastation. And it’s a big cost, but it’s invisible to most of us in the western world. So we didn’t even realize we were paying for it at first. Back in September 2010, when a Chinese fisherman rammed his boat into a Japanese coast guard ship, it didn’t just make us all aware of the existence of rare earths, it started making us aware of their price tag.

Alexis: And it turns out that magic is usually better left a mystery. Because when you pull back the curtain it’s usually complicated and ugly. But we’re Distillations and pulling back the curtain is what we do. So here we go. Starting back at the beginning. . .

Lisa: But first . . .


Alexis: Chapter 2: A brief rare earths primer.

Lisa: We realize that if you’re listening to this podcast it’s entirely possible that you are familiar with the periodic table. Maybe you’ve looked at it on occasion, maybe more than one occasion, even numerous occasions since 11th grade. But for those of you who have not, we see you, we love you, and you’re not alone.

Alexis: So, on the periodic table, you’ve got all the elements sorted together into groups. Things that have similar characteristics are near each other. Like for instance, the elements in group one are the Alkali metals, or as I learned them, the things that explode if you drop them in water.

Lisa: The rare earth elements are mostly in group six: they’re generally silver, silvery-white, or gray metals. They’re shiny until they hit the air, when they tarnish. They also have high electrical conductivity—and this is where the magic comes in—

Alexis: One of the most important applications of rare earths are in magnets. The magnet basically changes electricity into motion. The stronger the magnet is, the more motion you can get. So a strong, tiny magnet can make your iPhone vibrate itself off the table. And the same idea works backwards too. Magnets make it possible to change motion into electricity. Like when the shaft of a wind turbine spins inside a magnetic field, it becomes an electrical generator.

Lisa: And as scientists started discovering in the 1980s, you can make really strong magnets when you combine small amounts of rare earths like neodymium and dysprosium with metals like iron and boron. These powerful permanent magnets are partly what allows our gadgets to keep getting smaller and smaller and smaller.

Alexis: Rare earths aren’t radioactive, but they’re often found in rocks alongside radioactive elements and, this is a big thing: they’re hard to separate from the other metals and elements around them. Instead of thinking of it like panning for gold, where you can just wash off the dirt and boom, you’re done, getting rare earths is more like Pay-Doh.

Lisa: Yes, Play-Doh, stay with us: picture a bunch of differently colored pieces of Play-Doh. If you’ve ever watched a kid mush them all together you know how hard it is to separate those colors into their original containers. So that’s what it’s like when you find rare earths in the ground. That’s a bit about what they are, but perhaps more important is also what they’re not.

Alexis: despite their name, they are neither rare, nor earths—at least not in the way we use that term now. And that’s part of the problem. In the 18th century when they were discovered, people understood rare to mean “new.” And “earths” was because before we understood electrons and atomic weight, we classified elements by their properties: gases, metals, non-metals, and earths.

Lisa: In some ways they’re actually the opposite of rare. They’re everywhere. But while they’re spread roughly evenly over the surface of the Earth, it’s hard to find a lot in one place and extracting them is like trying to pull apart that ball of Play-Doh. They’re jumbled together with lots of other minerals in different concentrations. And thus ends our brief rare earths primer. Now that we’re all back on the same page, back to the story.

Lisa: Chapter 3: The excitement of discovery.

Alexis: Even though it wasn’t until 2010 that most of the world realized our dependence on rare earths, they’ve been around for a lot longer. Charlotte Abney Salomon is a research fellow here at the Science History institute, and an expert in 18th century Swedish mineralogy. And Sweden happens to be the place the first rare earth element was discovered.

Abney: I have made a pilgrimage to the, to the quarry in Ytterby where the original stone was found.

Alexis: Ytterby, Sweden is a tiny island off Stockholm. It’s sometimes called “the Galapagos Island of the periodic table” because seven elements were discovered there. Four of them are named after the island.

Abney: In the 1780s a Swedish artillery officer, who was highly educated in chemistry, was looking at some of the rocks that had been found identified one rock that was unusual and it found its way to a chemist by the name of Johan Gadolin in Finland who analyzed it to see what was so unusual about it.

Lisa: It was a rock unlike anything he had seen before. And Gadolin got credit for discovering a new type of “earth.” The excitement was mainly that it was new. But the rock didn’t really do anything, it wasn’t magic yet.

Abney: The nature of their chemistry means that they behave very very very very very similarly. So they really do appear as one pure substance. And so over the years they were able to assess them with finer and finer distinction and actually make the distinction between these elements.

Alexis: At the turn of the century Swedish natural historians were obsessed with cataloging and categorizing nature.

Abney: Practicality is absolutely a stereotype of the Swedish character and as a scientific community, they absolutely went very very deep over a very long period of time in, in attacking this question.

Lisa: And mineralogists were also obsessed with the idea of chemically analyzing every new rock they found on the ground. So they separated out rare earth elements, and began to organize them. The first rare earth they identified would eventually be named yttrium, the second, cerium.

Alexis: Then lanthanum, didymium—which, oops, turned out to be a mixture of praseodymium and neodymium. Then yttrium, erbium, and terbium. Then Lars Fredrik Nilson, another Swede, detected an element in 1879 which he called . . . wait for it: scandium. After Scandinavia.

Lisa: So one by one the rare earths are discovered, until finally there are 17. The only problem was that no one knew what to do with them.

Abney: I have seen a periodic table from about a hundred years ago that says rare earths and it has an asterisk and says they’re so rare and so unimportant that we won’t be naming them here. And so certainly a hundred years ago, they were definitely considered just kind of trivia of the periodic table.

Alexis: So the years go by. Like a hundred of them. And there is lots of discovery but no application, until. . .

Lisa: Until a chemist went looking for some magic.

Mid-show Distillations ad

Alexis: Hey listeners, we just want to take a moment to remind you to check out our website,

Lisa: That’s right, because Distillations is more than a podcast. We’re also a multimedia magazine.

Alexis: We tell stories about the intersections between science, culture, and history.

Lisa: You can read about how the pain-relieving potential of hot peppers—

Alexis: You can watch a video about an interactive astronomy textbook from the 17th century

Lisa: And find every single Distillations podcast episode ever!

Alexis: Also, you can find episode transcripts and research notes. All at

Lisa: Back to the show!

Alexis: Chapter 4: Carl Auer von Welsbach and the mixed-up metal.

Turner: It’s not until the 1890s that any of these elements become commercially useful.

Lisa: Roger Turner is a historian and research fellow here at the Science History Institute. He’s telling us about Carl Auer von Welsbach.

Alexis: Welsbach was a German chemist. In 1880 he was at the University of Heidelberg studying under Robert Bunsen, of the Bunsen burner. Yeah, that guy! The one who invented it. In 1882 Welsbach went to Vienna, where he worked as an unpaid lab assistant doing chemical separations of what else? Rare-earth elements.

Lisa: But Welsbach had dreams. He wanted to be a powerful wizard—I mean industrial tycoon. There was only one problem. In the 1880s, big business was in lighting and one guy named Thomas Edison pretty much had that on lock. So Welsbach had to come up with something else, and he did: better streetlights.

Turner: so urbanization is going gangbusters in the late 19th century. There’s more and more people are moving into cities.

Alexis: And those people wanted the streets to be lit at night. And Welsbach makes their wishes come true. He creates the gas mantle. It’s basically a fabric bag that creates light when it’s heated by a flame. And it’s powered by one percent thorium and 99 percent cerium—a rare earth. And there it is: magic.

Lisa: His lights became big business. By the 1930s Welsbach’s company has made 5 billion of them. And he’s made a ton of money which, let’s face it, is the higher forms of sorcery. But there’s a problem with his process.

Turner: He’s left with this kind of great piles of waste materials, which have this annoying tendency of catching on fire. So he put two and two together and realizes that perhaps he can use the waste metals as part of a fire starter.

Alexis: He calls the leftover material “mischmetal” or “mixed up metal” and with it he makes the model of the modern cigarette lighter.


Lisa: But remember, magic has a cost. All these brightly lit streets and cigarette lighters weren’t free.

Alexis: The first cost came from mining the ore. To extract the rare earths needed to make the gas mantles was no easy process and it did terrible damage to the water supply.

Turner: So anytime you’re mining, basically, the acidic water that reaches ground water or flows into streams that can poison streams and kill off the animals and the plants that are in those streams.

Lisa: Refining rare earths caused other problems. Acid baths and radioactive materials were involved. But at the time these costs were hidden to western consumers, because they were happening in faraway places like Brazil, India, and South Africa. Places that European nations using the materials had colonized.

Alexis: As nifty as streetlights and cigarette lighters are, rare earths still hadn’t permeated our lives yet. For that to happen, we’ve got to fast-forward to the Cold War. Because what’s a history of science story without a chapter on the Manhattan Project?

Alexis: Chapter 5: From uranium to color TV

Lisa: So the history of rare earth elements is tangled up with radioactive elements. Because rare earths themselves are literally, physically tangled up with radioactive elements. That’s one of their defining characteristics—that they’re bound up in deposits alongside things like uranium.

Alexis: So when the Manhattan Project needed uranium for the bomb during World War II, it makes sense that they asked for help from one of the few rare earth chemists in the US

Lisa: After World War II, the US saw uranium as crucial to national security. Uranium made the bomb, and other countries had to join in the arms race. And they also wanted it for nuclear power.

Turner: Their goal is to find uranium wherever it can be extracted around the world and first use international sources much as possible, while preserving domestic deposits for future use in times when perhaps international trade is disrupted.

Alexis: And this sets off a wild moment in US history. If you can imagine it, it’s the late 1940s, the US Atomic Energy Commission announces it will buy uranium ore from any American who finds it. It set off a uranium gold rush.

Uranium Mania: And they found uranium beyond their wildest dreams, they were so successful.

This uranium boom was one of the greatest mineral hunts we ever had, funded by the government. And I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like it again.

Lisa: I know you’ll be hugely surprised to hear that the public uranium prospecting initiative did not go very well. Newspaper accounts described cattle stampedes, and people threatening each other with guns. Some prospectors were mining without protection, and inhaled radioactive dust. The US government decided, a little belatedly, that they shouldn’t encourage amateur mining anymore.

Alexis: One professional mine did open, in the Mojave Desert, in Mountain Pass California. The mine was operated by a company called Molycorp and at first, rare earths were kind of a sideline business for them. But that all changed in the 1960s.

RCA: This is a world of color and the men of television long dreamed of capturing the full paint part of nature and brushing it on the screen.

Alexis: Color television was dope. But the red color on the screen could only be produced by the rare earth element europium.

Lisa: Color TVs became big business. And the Mountain Pass mine was the largest supplier of rare earth elements to the world from 1960 until the 1990s. All thanks to color TV. Because once you have color, you can’t go back to black and white. First it’s magic, then we expect it and then, we can’t live without it.

Alexis: But there’s a cost.

Lisa: There’s always a cost.

Alexis: And this time, the cost was lot more visible, because it was happening in our own backyard. Just like with Welsbach’s gas mantles, the europium had to be bathed in acid and heated up in high temperatures. That’s what separated it from the rest of the Play-Doh ball.

Turner: So this produces a lot of ways to produce has a huge amounts of radioactive water and it produces a lot of acid by-product as well.

Lisa: A common strategy to deal with all this contamination is to use something called a tailings pond. They are basically giant pools of particles from a mine, mixed in with chemicals and water to separate the stuff you want from the stuff that you don’t want.

Turner: But these tailings ponds leak and poison the groundwater. And so that’s the kind of repeated violations of California environmental law regarding the poisoning of groundwater that eventually played part of the role in shutting down the mountain pass mine.

Alexis: Federal investigators found that there were more than 60 spills of radioactive water that seeped into the dessert floor. Eventually the mine closed in 2002.

Lisa: But of course, this didn’t mean we were all ready to give up the magic. You know already, that’s not how this story ends: rare earths become an even bigger part of our lives.

Alexis: How did we do it? By getting someone else to make the magic. You see something else contributed to the California mine closing: China was quickly becoming the biggest rare earth supplier in the world. And neither Mountain Pass nor the US as a whole could keep up.

Lisa: Find out what happens next in Part 2, available now.

Alexis: Distillations is more than a podcast. We are also a multimedia magazine.

Lisa: You can find our podcast, videos, and stories at

Alexis: And you can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This story was reported by Rigoberto Hernandez and produced by Mariel Carr, Rigoberto Hernandez, and myself.

Lisa: And this episode was mixed by James Morrison.

Lisa: For Distillations I’m Lisa Berry Drago.

Alexis: And I am Alexis Pedrick.

BOTH: Thanks for listening.

Kerri: You’ve been listening to an episode of Distillations, presented by Stereo Chemistry. You can find part 2 of this story in the Stereo Chemistry feed as well. Stereo Chemistry is the official podcast of Chemical & Engineering News, which is published by the American Chemical Society. Thanks for listening.

Part 2

Kerri Jansen: Welcome back everyone. This is Kerri Jansen. I’m here with C&EN reporter Mitch Jacoby, and we’re continuing our discussion about rare-earth elements.

Mitch Jacoby: Hi everyone.

Kerri: This month, Stereo Chemistry is sharing two episodes of Distillations, a podcast from the Science History Institute, about the hidden costs of rare earths. We’re about to hear part 2 of this story. If you haven’t listened to part 1 yet, you can go do that now. We’re not going anywhere. And if you like what you hear, we hope you’ll check out Distillations’ feed on your favorite podcast platform.

Mitch: And you can also listen to episodes at

Kerri: That’s right. So Mitch, in part 1 of this story from Distillations, we heard about all of the things that we’ve come to expect rare earths to do for us—from making better streetlights in the early 20th century to making lighter and faster smartphones in the 21st century.

Mitch: Right. We’ve really come to rely on them in a lot of ways. But the scramble to meet skyrocketing demand for these materials has led to severe compromises for human health and environmental responsibility. The upcoming segment explores that fallout.

I want to note that although this episode was published in 2019, the issues discussed are relevant today. And they’re prompting a paradigm shift in how the world sources rare earths. Several companies have recently moved toward diversifying the supply chain that has long been dominated by China. For example, a British company is gearing up to build a rare earths processing plant in the UK, an Australian company is building one in Texas, and Greenland keeps making news about opening a mining facility there. Rare earths is still a hot topic.

And this episode also reveals that China’s motivations for wanting to cut back on rare-earth production may actually differ from what is commonly portrayed in Western media. You know, when I started covering rare earths about a dozen years ago, around the time of the incident with the Chinese fisherman, I heard very little about the environmental and health consequences of this industry. So I was very interested to hear about the roots of that disconnect in messaging between China and other players in the rare-earths industry.

Kerri: Thanks, Mitch. In the upcoming segment, we’ll also hear about what scientists are doing to try to address these issues, and what we all can do to ease up the pressure on the rare-earths industry.

And now, without further ado: part 2 of “Rare Earths: The Hidden Cost to Their Magic,” by Distillations.

Alexis: Welcome to Distillations, a podcast powered by the Science History Institute. I’m Alexis Pedrick.


Lisa: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.

Alexis: In each episode of Distillations we take a deep dive into a moment of science-related history in order to shed some light on the present.

Lisa: This is part 2 of “Rare Earths: The Hidden Cost to Their Magic.” In part one we told you the story of a Chinese fisherman who woke the world up to our dependence on rare earths.

Aljazeera: Is this the moment of maritime drama which sparked the worst political row in years between China and Japan? A Chinese marked fishing vessel is ordered to stop by Japanese sailors.

Lisa: We told you what rare earths are, how we found them in the first place, and how we’ve used them, or not used them throughout history.

Alexis: In this episode we’re gonna dive deeper into the costs of their magic. And if you haven’t already, you should probably listen to part one first.

Lisa: Chapter 6: How China became the rare earth capital of the world.

Abraham: I think what’s fascinating is that we used to under years ago know where everything came from.

Alexis: David Abraham is the author of a book about rare earths called The Elements of Power.

Abraham: If wood was cut down, it was cut down from somewhere nearby. And even if it wasn’t nearby you knew it was wood. And as you know, we start to use these products that are far more complex each component to a tremendously complex supply line to get to us.

Lisa: Because of that complexity, people often don’t realize that rare earths are not truly rare. They’re everywhere. Most countries have enough rare earths under their soil for their own needs. But they aren’t equally easy to actually get out of the ground. And they’re hazardous to mine.

Klinger: They can be very expensive to get if you want to source them in a socially and environmentally responsible way. And so the solution has been to cut out the socially and environmentally responsible part and just go for cheap.

Turner: All of those technologies come with costs that are borne by some people and born in some places. And benefits that often accrue to different people in different places.

Klinger: The places where historically it’s easier to get these things on the cheap are marginal former colonial, frontier, remotely populated areas. Which is why, despite the relative ubiquity of rare earth elements in the earth’s crust, we tend to see mining in Inner Mongolia, interest in mining these things in the Amazon, you know, the Mountain Pass mine was located in southeastern California, right? These are not heavily populated places where mining interests are going to have to answer to a lot people who concerned about what’s happening in their backyard.

Lisa: The Chinese government developed its rare earth industry far from Beijing, in the backyards of powerful people. China began its dominance in rare earths with ore left over from iron and uranium mines in Inner Mongolia. And starting in the 1980s, China was setting up research programs to unlock their power.

Alexis: And the US actually played a role in making it that way. Thanks to Richard Nixon and his brother, Edward.

Lisa: Edward Nixon was a geologist and environmental scientist. H actually help convince his brother to form the EPA in 1970.

Klinger: He did do a lot of consulting work for industrial concerns. So his solution at the time was actually to facilitate the transfer of heavy industry from the US to different countries. And one of the reasons was, honestly, to move heavily polluting industries outside of the United States. And so from a nationalist, environmentalist standpoint, it makes perfect sense, right? Protect America, preserve America’s environments, move polluting industries overseas. It was a conservative, environmentalist, patriotic act to establish the Environmental Protection Agency. This is part of the deindustrialization of the West.

Alexis: In other words we get to keep the magic, someone else gets to pay the cost.

Klinger: If you look at the textile industry or the automotive industry, there were a lot of people who continue to be very angry about the fact that these industries left the United States. For rare earths, maybe not so much, because rare-earth mining is extremely hazardous. If you’re bringing up rare earth elements, you’re also bringing up radioactive waste and this is very expensive, and very controversial to manage well.

Lisa: Chapter 7: Sacrifice zones.

Klinger: We have this attitude that, you know, there’s no way to get the stuff that we need without sacrificing someplace, somewhere. Someone’s going to have to bear the burden.

Alexis: There’s a term for the places that bear the cost of making the magic in all of our gadgets and tech: sacrifice zones.

Lisa: We’re going to tell you about two of these sacrifice zones, in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region in northern China. Inner Mongolia is also a disputed territory, like those islands in the East China Sea. The town of Bayan Obo is one of those sacrifice zones.

Klinger: This used to be windswept grasslands. You know, it’s not a barren desert. It’s not a wasteland. It was a place where for millennia, nomadic pastoralist grazed. Today you still see herders moving with their flocks, but of course life is much different for herders in this contemporary context because they live in the shadow of the largest rare earth mine in the world.

Lisa: In 1927, China came across iron reserves here. They found rare earths ten years later and have mined them ever since. The mine is basically two giant pits and big tailing ponds.

Klinger: And couched in the middle of this is actually the town of Bayan Obo.

Alexis: There’s another sacrifice zone in Inner Mongolia called Baotou City, which is 93 miles south Bayan Obo. And this is actually where most of rare earths mined in Bayan Obo get refined.

Klinger: It’s not a frontier outpost. It’s a glistening modern metropolis, with lots of high rises and neon lights and things like that --much like other major cities on China’s eastern seaboard.

Alexis: Without adequate protections, rare earth mining and processing can produce devastating effects—not just to the land, but to the people who live there. And it’s not just the rare earths themselves causing damage, it’s things that come up alongside them like fluoride and arsenic.

Lisa: These two can cause skeletal fluorosis. It’s is a debilitating condition that causes bones to become brittle and break. Bones can grow erratically and become out of synch with their muscles and ligaments.

Klinger: You can identify maybe who was born and raised just outside of the city because, you know, often you’re looking at stunted growth, people who have skin lesions or even you know, acute cases of skeletal fluorosis, which look like bone deformities. So one of the things that you notice when you visit Baotou are these really large hospitals? I’m talking 20 stories; 20-story hospital dedicated entirely to bone medicine. It’ll say in big letters at the top of the 20-story building, the bone, the regional bone medicine hospital.

Alexis: And it is not just deformities people around Baotou use a couple of terms that signify the devastation. One is “cancer villages,” places where the cancer rates have skyrocketed because of the pollution. The normal ratio of people diagnosed with cancer is 2-in 1,000. In Baotou it’s one in seven. It has become a rallying cry to protest the human toll.

Klinger: To say, Look, look at the human costs of this way of doing business, right? So this was a grievance, advanced on the part of Chinese citizens against the industry and against the government, right? What did they want? They wanted to be moved. They wanted to be compensated. They wanted medical treatment and they also wanted the cause of the illness to be taken care of.

Alexis: The hazards of rare earths come at four stages: the mining itself, refining the ore, managing the waste, and disposing of it. First, the mining. Blasting rare earths out of the earth’s crust means blasting out other elements too. Elements that weren’t harming anyone in the ground.

Klinger: But once you blast them out of the ground, you pulverize them into powder. You know, what you’re doing is you’re transforming them into a form that they can be inhaled, that they can stick to your skin, that they can be transported on the wind and enter into the food and water stream.

Lisa: And it isn’t only people who work in the mine who are affected. Everyone downstream is affected too. Chances are they’re eating meat from animals who were drinking contaminated water and eating contaminated vegetation.


Alexis: Refining the rare earths also creates pollution. This is where the elements need to be separated from the rest of the ore. The process requires acid baths and extremely high temperatures and it doesn’t happen in Bayan Obo, but in Baotou.

Klinger: And the reason that you have this disconnect between the mining site and the processing site is simply because the processing requires a lot of water and Baotou is located on the northern shore of the Yellow River.

NPR: It gains its name from the yellow soil that bleeds into the water as the river descends from the Tibetan plateau. In recent years, the river has gained another more notorious claim to fame as one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

Lisa: For every ton of rare earth produced, dozens or even hundreds of tons of radioactive waste water—or water contaminated with heavy metals or radioactive materials—are also created. And those radioactive materials also create radon gas, which can cause cancer.

Klinger: This is a city of several million people. And ,you know, downstream of the major industrial facility. These are traditional agricultural villages. Historically this has been a really important food base for the city, and so historically people have been consuming, you know, vegetable produce and meats and fish protein that are contaminated with the waste from rare earth refining and processing.

Alexis: Mines from other parts of the world now ship their raw ore there to refine it processing is happening everywhere. David Abraham visited a few processing plants in southern China. Here’s him describing one:

Abraham: It felt like a small warehouse that you’d walk in. It was a pitched roof, but it really wasn’t wider then about 20 feet and it was about 70 feet long, and along the side of the building were about seven furnaces all boiling away. So you could really feel the heat when you, when you, came in the room. And after being there and watching these cauldrons bubble with some type of metal in them. I started to look around and feel that my nose was burning in my eyes were starting to water.

So these guys are working there 6, 6 days a week and I couldn’t imagine the toll it’s taking on their bodies.

Lisa: Refining rare earths has become such big business in China that people are setting up their own small-scale operations.

Abraham: Especially when we’re looking in southern China. A lot of these mining facilities some were quite rogue. To produce rare earths was very easy for a local miner to do. They could just take up a little bit of earth throw up some acid on it and boom they had something that they could sell. So when that’s happening, it’s very easy for individuals to create very inefficient, very polluting, but very profitable for the individual, material processing. But when you’re mining, you as we were mentioning before, in ninety-seven percent of the material is useless, so you have to put it back.

Alexis: And this brings us to the other two other ways that rare earth production is hazardous: waste management and disposal.

Klinger: So all of that stuff has to go somewhere. And so what mine’s typically do is, and or have historically done is that they dig a big retention pond nearby. And they pipe their wastewater which also contains the remaining, the remaining ore that was wanted, and they dump it there, right? And gradually over time, the water drains out into the surrounding soil or evaporates and what you’re left with is kind of a silt or a slurry. And what some mining operations do is they then haul that away somewhere else.

Lisa: But the scary thing is, we don’t always know where that somewhere is.

Klinger: This was really what kept me up at night. You, these are people who had other plans for their lives. And I really identified with that. I mean I talked with people who were dying of cancer and to me it seemed such a terrible, needless waste simply because we are collectively globally not willing to pay a few more dollars per kilo for our rare earth elements, in order for them to be sourced sustainably.

Alexis: Maybe this is surprising, but China has documented this devastation pretty well.

Klinger: There’s often an assumption that “oh, you know, this environmental degradation is happening because they’re incompetent and they don’t know any better. They have they must have no idea the scope of the damage that they’re doing.” But in fact, you know, if you go to the municipal library in Baotou City, there are shelves of studies dating back to the 70s that monitor changes in soil quality and water quality. There’s a number of scientific journals that are devoted to the questions of radioactive waste management of soil and water rehabilitation from what are called exhausted industrial areas.

Alexis: And it’s not just the research. They’re also responding to the people’s demands.

Klinger: The credit of China’s institutions that they’ve built hospitals, a number of people have been resettled and compensated. Of course, there’s a lot of problems with that process as it actually plays on the ground. And actually China has been working really hard to reduce its share of global rare earth production.

Lisa: This part is really key. China wants to produce fewer rare earths so that it can get its environmental problem under control. But we wouldn’t let them. In fact, China would be punished for trying to be environmentally responsible. Sounds wild, but it brings us back to the fisherman incident.

Mid-show Distillations ad

Alexis: Hey listeners, we just want to take a moment to remind you to check out our website,

Lisa: That’s right, because Distillations is more than a podcast. We’re also a multimedia magazine.

Alexis: We tell stories about the intersections between science, culture, and history.

Lisa: You can read about how the pain-relieving potential of hot peppers—

Alexis: You can watch a video about an interactive astronomy textbook from the 17th century

Lisa: And you can find every single Distillations podcast episode ever!

Alexis: Also, you can find episode transcripts and research notes. All at

Lisa: Back to the show!

Lisa: Chapter 8: The 2010 Rare Earths Crisis.

Alexis: Remember our story about the Chinese fisherman who set off an international crisis?

News Clip: On September 7, 2010, Zhan Qixiong was fishing in the disputed Japanese controlled islands.

Alexis: The isolated incident, the fluke that freaked out the world unnecessarily? Well, we left something out. Before that 2010 incident something bigger had been brewing for a few years.

Lisa: China had been limiting the amount of rare earths they were exporting since 2006. Because they were actually trying to get a handle on the pollution. Their mines and processing facilities throughout the country were harming millions of people and their environment. Reducing production would slow things down.

Klinger: Reducing production domestically is a victory for China’s domestic environmental movements. That’s a victory for public health advocates in China.

Alexis: In 2010, just before the incident with the fisherman, China reduced its quotas by 40%. This raised the prices of rare earths significantly.

Lisa: People around the world were upset, and the 2010 incident fueled the fire. When American media outlets incorrectly labeled it as a total embargo prices shot up even more. But even more importantly it justified the United States, Japan, and the European Union in bringing a case against China to the World Trade Organization. They filed a joint lawsuit in 2012 saying that China shouldn’t be allowed to deny exports of such critical elements.

Obama: We got to take control of our energy future and we can’t let that energy industry take root in some other country because they were allowed to break the rules. This morning we’re taking an additional step forward. We’re bringing a new trade case against China and we’re being joined by Japan and some of our European allies.

Alexis: The World Trade Organization ruled against China in 2014. The rules said they couldn’t restrict exports by setting national quotas. Now China has a good case to limit production, but you won’t hear Chinese officials. Talk about it to the English-speaking world.

Klinger: Environmental contamination and associated unrest is a very sensitive matter. For the Chinese government, it’s not something that can really safely be talked about and it is also, the Chinese government is also acutely aware that this is a point that very easily and immediately draws international criticism. So in a way, by maybe downplaying or understating the extent of the environmental harms, you know to the outside world, the Chinese government has kind of undermined its own very reasonable case for actually controlling and for actually getting rare earth production under control.

Lisa: During the in-between years, a black market appeared and started filling the gaps left by China’s legal production. And as you might guess, they weren’t doing things in an environmentally responsible way. They were doing things in the cheapest possible way.


Klinger: So really a sizable portion of the rare earth elements that were being consumed worldwide. We’re coming from informal or illegal channels

Alexis: We’re at point now where we can’t live without rare earths. There’s huge demand and all it takes is for someone to come up with the supply. And whoever does it cheapest wins.

Alexis: Meanwhile in Brazil, a company was starting to invest in more ethical and sustainable rare earth production.

Klinger: So the story of the Araxá mine in Brazil is a tale of hope and disappointment.

Lisa: The mine produces 80% of the world’s niobium, which is used to make stronger steel. It’s not a rare earth but it has similar properties to rare earths and it’s usually found alongside them.

Alexis: This mine is also the only one that has a certification that guarantees that it complies with local laws and other strict environmental requirements. The only one! It’s known as ISO 14001 certification. And it has been running since the 1960s.

Lisa: So why do we care about this mine if niobium isn’t a rare earth? Because they’re collecting a ton of rare earths in their waste ponds.

Klinger: And so shortly after you know, the earlier crisis happened at the beginning of the decade. One of the things that this company decided to do is to fast-track a program to reprocess their existing waste and to extract rare earth elements from it and they managed to do this for a number of rare earth elements and to achieve very high levels of purity. The tale of hope is that this company has developed a technique that could signal a paradigm shift for how we get the elements we need.

Alexis: This technique could let us out of the 20th century way of mining.

Klinger: The tale of disappointment is that they just can’t beat the China price. That’s the despair.

Alexis: Once people get a taste of not only magic, but cheap magic, it’s hard to go back. Especially as long as the ugly costs stay hidden.

Klinger: But there were also a number of people who were driven by the need or the desire and the commitment to figuring out an environmentally, and socially responsible way to source rare earth elements. And the market didn’t support these people.

Lisa: The 2010 crisis fed a gold-rush fervor in rare earths. Sound familiar? People were prospecting all over the world.

Klinger: So you had prospectors in Greenland claiming that they found the world’s greatest rare-earth deposits. You have reports coming out from North Korea that North Korea has the world’s largest rare earth. You have reports coming from Afghanistan that Afghanistan has the world’s largest rare deposit. And you had reports coming out of Brazil that Brazil had the world’s largest rare earth deposits. And the interesting claim about all of these claims, that it was potentially the world’s largest rare earth deposits is that each of these deposits were located in places that were legally or logistically impossible to mine.

Lisa: Even Molycorp, home to the former Mountain Pass mine, reopened in 2012.

MSNBC: Molly Corp siding higher sales volumes and prices all due to a growing demand for so-called rare earth minerals.

Alexis: But it closed after only 3 years. And the main reason why is that it simply cannot compete with China. But there might be another reason: after the 2010 crisis some companies are trying to learn to live without them.

Alexis: Chapter 9: Replacing rare earths.

Lisa: So up until this point we’ve been talking about rare earths as these indispensable parts of our lives. We got hooked on their magic and now we can’t live without it. So what we want to know is why can’t we all make our own magic—aka, find our own rare earths—wherever we are?

Alexis: Turns out it’s not that easy, despite the fact that they’re everywhere opening up a new mine is expensive and it takes about 20 years to get them off the ground. And we don’t have that kind of time, because rare earths are critical for our green technologies, like hybrid and electric cars. In other words, we need rare earths to solve our climate crisis.

Lisa: It’s really a painful paradox. And producing them sustainably in places like the US seems to be off the table right now. But there are some alternatives. For example, enter Ames Laboratory in Iowa.

Ames Laboratory Archival: With the coming of the atomic age and work with radioactive materials has brought a necessity for special laboratories, with special equipment. Such is the case at the research center of the Ames Laboratory on the Iowa State College campus.

King: Roughly a third of all of the uranium that was used during the Manhattan Project was actually produced in Ames by the Ames project.

Alexis: Ames Laboratory is now a Department of Energy lab that researches rare earths. Alex King, was the director until 2013.

King: So all the technologies that were developed to work on uranium have since been commercialized and got into the commercial sector, but the lab still uses a lot of that expertise to carry on work on rare earth elements.

Alexis: After the 2010 crisis the US department of energy created a “critical material policy.” They pumped almost 500 million dollars to open the Critical Material Institute at Ames Laboratory.

King: And so far we have something around 80 inventions and they include things like processes for recycling materials.

Lisa: Ames scientist Ikenna Nlebedim developed a new method of recycling rare earths from manufacturing waste.

Ikenna: And the goal is to dissolve magnet as efficiently as could be dissolved with acid recover high-purity rare earth elements, without resulting in toxic waste.

Alexis: Recycling is definitely helping, but Ames is taking it a step further. They’re coming up with ways to keep all of the magic without rare earths.

Lisa: That’s right. Scientists are working on replacements for rare earths. And they’ve already come up with some. Like a replacement for some applications of europium—remember that particular rare earth that made the red lights in color TV?

King: The material we’ve invented to replace europium works very well in one of the places that europium is used but not in all are in all of them.

Alexis: It works great in fluorescent lights, not so great in all of the smartphone or computer screens that also use europium.

King: Any one strategy may meet part of the challenge but not all of it. So what it does is, it releases some of the europium that’s going into fluorescent lights and that can then go into other areas where europium is needed. So you need to have a diversified strategy.

Lisa: Beyond Ames lab, some companies have found ways to cut their use of rare earths or replace them altogether. Toyota made its Prius motors smaller, so they’re using less rare earths. Ford redesigned its Fusion hybrid to use less too. And they’ve moved away from neodymium—the rare earth that makes magnets more powerful. Tesla, on the other hand, recently started using neodymium where they weren’t before. But at least one success story is that wind turbines are moving away from using rare earths altogether.

Alexis: So piece by piece, does this mean that we won’t need rare earths in the future? Well, unfortunately time is not on our side. We still need rare earths in a lot of green technology. And we don’t have time to completely overhaul how we make green technology. Here’s Roger Turner again.

Turner: And so we need them in the next 20 years. Over the longer term? I think it’s that certainly an open and open question. But these are metals that matter for our future.

Alexis: In 2019 rare earths are in the headlines again.

MSNBC: President Trump is talking about the fact that the trade war with China is maybe going to go away but there’s actually no sign that it’s going to. The trade war is ramping up with China over something called rare earth minerals.

Klinger: If we continue to frame the rare earth challenge in terms of China potentially holding the rest of the world in a stranglehold. We’re actually overlooking the common ground that we have, not only in maintaining a globally secure supply, which means a diversified supply but also getting ourselves out of this 19th and 20th century mode of mining that just takes devastation for granted. The assumption that the way that we’ve always mined rare earth elements is the only way that we can mine rare earth elements is, to me, a profound failure of imagination.


Alexis: For Klinger there’s actually a simple solution. The US government and companies should demand that their rare earths come from a place that has the ISO 14001 certification. Think of it kind of like that labeled that’s put in organic food to notify the customer, except it’s for rare earths.

Lisa: And if you’re freaked out what you can do as an individual, well honestly the best thing you can do is to hold off on buying that new iPhone or the new gadget.

Abraham: The less material that we need on a day-to-day basis, the less iPhones that someone needs to have, the less stuff that someone needs to buy likely they’re making a green decision by not buying it. If you can get another year out of your smartphone, if you can get another year out of your computer, the green decision is to stick with what you’ve got.

Alexis: But there’s something else. The best thing you can do, really, if we want to get down to it is educate yourself. Understand what rare earths are and what role they play in the world so the next time you hear a politician talking about green technology or hear it mentioned in the news, you understand what they are talking about. And you can demand that they get answers, do research and make more sustainable decisions.

Alexis: Distillations is more than a podcast. We are also a multimedia magazine.

Lisa: You can find our podcast, videos, and stories at

Alexis: And you can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This story was reported Rigoberto Hernandez and produced by Mariel Carr, Rigoberto Hernandez, and myself.

Lisa: And this episode was mixed by James Morrison.

Lisa: For Distillations I’m Lisa Berry Drago.

Alexis: And I am Alexis Pedrick.

BOTH: Thanks for listening.

Kerri: You’ve been listening to an episode of Distillations, presented by Stereo Chemistry. Stereo Chemistry is the official podcast of Chemical & Engineering News, which is published by the American Chemical Society. Thanks for listening.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.