A group of 17 elements make up a little-known group called rare earth metals. They are notoriously tricky to extract, which is unfortunate since they’re key components in smartphones, batteries, motors, and wind turbines, and essential to a clean-energy future. China has a near monopoly on the mining and processing of rare earth metals, but as demand for them rises, other countries are looking to get into the game.
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Kira Bindrim is the host of the Quartz Obsession podcast. She is an executive editor who works on global newsroom coverage and email products. She is obsessed with reality TV.
Mary Hui is a reporter based in Hong Kong, where she covers geopolitics and business. She is obsessed with running long hours on trails while thinking about life in authoritarian states.
This episode uses the following sounds from freesound.org:
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Kira Bindrim: If I were to ask you what exactly is in your smartphone, what would you say?
Me, I’d say 10,000 photos 500 contacts. Also truly an embarrassing number of videos of my cat. But those are the things that make my smartphone mine. What makes it smart is metal. See, the average smartphone contains up to 62 different types of metals. And depending on your phone, between 8 and 16 of them are part of an obscure group known as rare earth metals, or rare earths. These are elements that mostly hang out at the bottom of the periodic table with names like Scandium and Europium. But without them, smartphone displays wouldn’t have such vivid colors. iPhone screens wouldn’t have their signature polish. Honestly, your phone wouldn’t even be able to vibrate.
There are 17 rare earths in the world. And they aren’t just important for phones. You can find them in motors, aircraft engines, wind turbines, hard drives, and batteries. There are 55 pounds of rare earths in every Toyota Prius, 920 pounds in an F-35 fighter jet, and 9000 pounds in a nuclear submarine. Not to mention, more than 90% of electric vehicles use motors with rare earth magnets.
So it’s safe to say every modern economy needs these metals. But only one country has a monopoly on the industry. In 2019, China processed 87% of the world’s rare earths. Now, with more gadgets driving more demand, a lot of countries are wondering how they can get in the game.
This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host Kira Bindrim. Today, rare earths and how the future of high tech manufacturing hinges on just 17 metals.
I’m joined now by Mary Hui, who is in Hong Kong. It’s 8pm there, which means it’s 8am where I am. So Mary is joining us from the future. Tell me Mary, how is Hong Kong today?
Mary Hui: Yeah, so I’m in Hong Kong. And yes, it’s the evening as we’re recording this, I’m actually looking out on the Hong Kong skyline and it’s dense, a kind of urban jungle, looking out my window. But I’d say my favorite part is probably the mountains, they are so close by and I can always just pop out for a run on the trails to recharge and to think about something else other than what’s on my laptop.
Kira Bindrim: Speaking of things on your laptop, I am very curious to hear how you got interested in rare earths.
Mary Hui: So I kept seeing rare earths in headlines and stories and tweets, but I really couldn’t quite grasp why they were so important or what really the scale or the complexity was. I wanted to figure that out for myself and saw that as a good way to look at the intersection of geopolitics, economics, and business as well as a good dose of wonkiness which really is kind of ultimate Quartz. So that’s where I got started. And I’m still looking at it now.
Kira Bindrim: I feel like we must be on very, very different Twitters if you are seeing rare earth sweets on the regular because let me tell you I am not. What exactly are rare earths? Give us the sort of chemistry 101 here.
Mary Hui: It’s really a group of 17 elements with quite similar chemical and physical properties. Sometimes they’re referred to as industrial vitamins. Because small doses of rare earths can actually boost performance and a lot of technologies actually wouldn’t work very well without rare earths.
Kira Bindrim: So what makes rare earths so special; why these 17 minerals? What’s so unique about them?
Mary Hui: Yeah, it’s really because rare earths have quite unique physical and chemical properties and 4 of them stand out. They’re magnetic. So that makes them good candidates for batteries. It means that batteries can carry more energy per a given amount of weight. They’re luminescent, i.e. glowy. They’re electrical and they’re catalytic, meaning that they are catalysts or they make certain chemical reactions go faster.
Kira Bindrim: Why am I hearing about them now versus in the past? What’s changed, if anything?
Mary Hui: Well, in large part, I think it’s because the world has began paying much more attention to critical material supply chains. We’ve seen how small disruptions in supply chains can really ripple throughout the global economy and cause humongous backlogs and snags, and so that’s one reason. Another reason is because they have just become so much more necessary with high tech manufacturing, and also with the energy transition as we move towards a more renewable economy. A lot of these rare earths will be needed for things like electric vehicles and wind turbines, which will be very key to getting carbon emissions down. So that’s why I think rare earths are really quite at the forefront of the global conversation right now.
Kira Bindrim: Here’s another probably dumb question. What is the process from getting a rare earth from a mine to my phone? Like what is the whole procedure?
Mary Hui: It’s quite a long process. So what does what does that process look like right? So you’ve mined that out of the ground, then you need to crush, and grind, and float what you’ve just dug up from the ground to increase the rate of concentration by getting rid of some of the other stuff. Then you kind of crack it. Crack meaning you put in the big oven and you crank up the temperature. And then you leech it with water to flush out the impurities. At this point the solution is still mixed. It’s in a liquid solution. So you’ve got to try and separate things. And there are different ways of separation, one being to precipitate it, which means that you can separate the individual elements out or groups of elements. And then finally, you’ve got the pure rare earth metal or rare earth oxides. And this is finally sold to firms that need those things to make their rare earth magnets or their batteries, for example.
Kira Bindrim: Okay, so it’s quite involved it sounds like. To my little mining knowledge just sounds quite involved. And is this processing and all of this other stuff that has to happen? Is that primarily happening in the same place as the mine? Or does that just sort of fragment out into the rest of the world?
Mary Hui: So right now, processing happens mostly in China. China really has dominance over both the production of rare earths and the processing, and then also in the production of rare earth magnets.
Kira Bindrim: Sounds like they’re a pretty important part of this whole equation, give me a little intel on the magnet side of things.
Mary Hui: So rare earth magnets are magnets with rare earths in them that make them much more magnetic. The rare earths boost their performance and makes them much more powerful magnets. This is needed for things like the motors in electric vehicles or in wind turbines. So right now, the fact that China has dominance over such a wide section of the industry chain has people quite worried about what that means. The US really wants to reestablish its own rare earth supply chains by mining its own reserves and also making its own magnets using rare earths.
Kira Bindrim: Okay, so we’ve established a baseline. China is the dominant player in terms of processing rare earths and also rare earth magnets. Why is that? Give me a little backstory on how China came to be such a dominant player in this industry.
Mary Hui: China didn’t used to be the biggest player or the biggest producer of rare earths. They really got there by using targeted industrial policy in quite a successful way. We start from, say, the 1980s when they used export tax rebates to encourage rare earth production. So producers were paid back their taxes by exporting rare earths. Then the government wanted to dial that back a little bit, maybe it was getting a little unruly in the rare earth industry, and they wanted to kind of give it some shape. So in the 90s, they jumped in and instead of giving tax rebates to people, they would put export quotas to favor certain rare earth exports, they wanted rare earths that were processed to be exported more than rare earths that were just being sent out in their raw form just to get a bit more money out of those products and enter shift the industry away from the upstream raw and processed stuff to the more processed stuff. And then we have the 2000s there is new overseas rare earths mining and processing outside of China so the competition is ramping up. China gets a little concerned so it dials up its domestic regulation. The whole goal really is to make sure they can preserve China’s rare earth exports so that they’re not being sold that these dirt cheap, so called cabbage prices, below what they are actually valued at.
Kira Bindrim: How many rare earths companies are we talking about in China?
Mary Hui: So they decide that to really concentrate the industry around 6 major state owned giants. Right now those giants really make up the rare earth industry in China. They’re the ones that hold the production quotas and the mining quotas. And then of course, you have other kind of downstream players like magnet makers and battery makers.
Kira Bindrim: So what China is controlling when we say they’re controlling the supply chain is how much of these materials is being exported, at what price the material is being exported, and in what form the material is being exported. Is that right?
Mary Hui: I don’t know if that absolutely controlling the price? Actually that is one of China’s worries is that they don’t have very much influence over the price at which the rare earths are sold. That’s one of the weaknesses that the Chinese government thinks that the rare earth industry has to deal with. Otherwise, they do want to try and shape the industry in the ways that you just described.
Kira Bindrim: So if you’re China, you’re thinking about the base supply that you have, because of the deposits that just happened to be where you are, you’re thinking about trying to maintain some sort of control over how much of those supplies is exported in general, but also specifically as raw material versus in materials or in goods that China has already made. And you’re trying to sort of exercise control at both ends of that supply chain it sounds like. It’s a lot to think about, I guess, is what I’m getting at here.
Mary Hui: Yeah so they really do have to think about all the segments of the supply chain constantly. And you know, for other players trying to catch up with China, the flip side holds true, right? You really can’t just start digging rare earths out of the ground and say, problem solved, we have reduced our reliance on China. You have to make sure that there are companies in your country or elsewhere outside of China that will use those rare earths so that those rare earths aren’t sold back to China to then help their own magnet makers, and battery makers, and the like. So it really is kind of a whole supply chain thing that people have to consider and make sure that all the pieces are kind of fitting together well.
Kira Bindrim: Is China dealing with any challenges here, or is the only threat to China really the level of success these other countries have?
Mary Hui: China is unquestionably still very dominant in the rare earth industry, but that’s not to say that they don’t have their own concerns. China is overly reliant on kind of the mining and the processing part of supply chain and not as strong in coming up with innovative new uses of rare earths or coming up with the latest inventions or the science for batteries and magnets. So they really want to work on that part of the supply chain
Kira Bindrim: After the break, what rare earths are doing to the planet.
Kira Bindrim: Okay, so I want to pivot a little bit, I feel like it would be stupid of me not to ask you about the environmental impact of all of this. What is the environmental impact of rare earths mining and processing?
Mary Hui: Rare earth miners and the road industry in general, they really want to position themselves as these green players who are really key to the energy revolution. And that’s quite true. But routes mining and processing, as any other extractive industry can be quite environmentally damaging. For example, mining can disrupt the environment. Of course, there are potential pollutants and contaminants. Rare earth processing can also be quite damaging to the environment. There are lots of chemicals that need to go into that stage of the supply chain. It can also leave behind radioactive waste or other waste products that end up getting absorbed into the soil and water. We see these flash points come up. Most recently in Greenland, where the opposition party actually partially ran on the platform that they were opposing this big rare earths project in the country. Elsewhere in Malaysia, there has been long-running popular opposition to this one processing plant for rare earths. So, you know, everywhere you do see that kind of opposition and there are very valid concerns. But at the same time, we don’t have technologies that will completely replace rare earths in batteries and magnets right now so it looks like rare earths will definitely be playing a really, really important role for at least the years to come.
Kira Bindrim: Are we working on those technologies? And, or, I guess, are we working on technologies to recycle rare earths to at least make rare earths more sustainable?
Mary Hui: Yeah, governments and companies are looking to recycle rare earths and there are other scientists who are working on replacing rare earths and making rare earth free magnets and batteries. But I think given how much activity we’re seeing in the rare earth space right now, it’s probably fair to say that rare earths will be sticking around for a good while longer before these other technologies maybe will replace rare earths.
Kira Bindrim: Is that something that companies whose products rely on rare earths talk about? If I’m Elon Musk, or I’m Tim Cook, and my products are heavily reliant on rare earths am I 1, talking about it? And 2, talking about the sort of environmental impact of those materials at all? Or is it all very, you know, people don’t know what they are so lets not really discuss.
Mary Hui: Companies are concerned about this. That’s I think why you see the Apple iPhone 12, I think it is, using 98% recycled rare earths. So you do see companies trying to make sure that they can make their products as sustainably as possible.
Kira Bindrim: There’s just so much here, which is just so interesting, like you’ve taken something that I never thought about and connected it to geopolitical issues, and environmental issues, and supply chain issues, and all of these things that are much larger conversations. You also know a lot of detail about about rare earths in particular, but I want to talk a little bit about those big-picture things. What do you think are the big-picture implications that you’ve discovered in doing all of this detailed research on rare earths?
Mary Hui: As I’ve been writing, reading, and reporting on rare earths, 1 thing I often keep in mind is that rare earths really are just 1 part of a much larger picture, that much larger picture being how do countries and businesses make sure that they’re able to secure this stable and reliable supply of all these critical materials that power the global economy? And rare earths are just 1 part of that. There are lots of other materials that they need to think about, like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, and even high purity quartz, but they think that might be a whole other podcast, where we talk about quartz on the Quartz podcast.
Kira Bindrim: What about for China? Like, it’s always fascinating when we get a bit of a glimpse into the way China is approaching its strategic ambitions. Rare earth sounds like something in that camp. What do you what do you take away from how China is approaching rare earths into how Beijing approaches widespread policy?
Mary Hui: That’s the other really interesting part about it, which makes rare earths not just this chemical, business story, but also quite political in that it tells us a lot about how China sees, and positions itself in the global economy. It wants to cement and extend its influence across entire supply chain so that they have influence over entire sectors. They want to kind of extend their influence horizontally across lots of different companies, but also vertically, from the upstream to downstream. They want to do that across industries, not just rare earths, but also say in lithium, or other kinds of critical materials. By looking at rare earths, we will get a pretty good idea of how else they want to use their playbook.
Kira Bindrim: You said something at the top that I want to come back which is that you got into this topic because it’s so quintessentially Quartz. Obviously that resonates with me as a fellow colleague of yours at Quartz, but it was kind of my takeaway, when I started reading your work on rare earths a year ago. I just had this kind of like stoner “whoa” moment where you sort of look around the world and think, okay, I’m holding my phone. And you’re thinking about the backstory of all of these things. What are all the materials that went into this? Where did they come from? What tensions are they a part of? What are they exposing about the environment? And I do think rare earths are such an interesting case study for that because they are the tiniest thing you can think of, but are used in some of the most popular things. I think the best version of Quartz, and the best version of yours and our reporting, is that it’s helping you look around the world and your day-to-day life, seeing things in a totally different light because you’ve learned all of this not weird, highly relevant, but also perhaps a little bit quirky information that connects that thing to the rest of the global economy. And which is all to say, Mary, that you’ve done a fantastic job of doing that today and sort of drawing those connecting threads.
I have one last question for you. What is your favorite or most interesting fun fact about rare earths that you’ve come across? Like “I am stuck in an elevator with someone and I’m that person that’s going to give them a factoid about rare earth while they’re stuck in an elevator with me.” (God help the person stuck in an elevator with me) What is the factoid or the fun fact that I should give them?
Mary Hui: So here’s a fun fact, maybe less usable if you’re stuck in the US, but if you make it to Europe, when travel returns, you can tell someone that actually there is a bit of rare earth in a Euro banknote. There is Europium in the Euro banknote because of its glowiness. It glows under UV light. And so that’s actually used for anti-forgery, anti-money laundering purposes. So I thought that was pretty cool that there is rare earth literally kind of sitting in people’s wallets and not just their phones.
Kira Bindrim: And is it a coincidence that the Euro uses Europium?
Mary Hui: I don’t know which one came first.
Kira Bindrim: They certainly weren’t named together, I guess. Thank you so much for joining me today, Mary. This is great.
Mary Hui: Thanks for having me.
Kira Bindrim: That’s our obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius, our sound engineer is George Drake, and the theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to reporter Mary Hui in Hong Kong, and editor Alex Ossola in New York. If you liked what you heard, subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Tell your friends about us, especially the ones addicted to their smartphones. Then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s weekly obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.