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Extensive use of Rare earth metals in clean energy technologies

  • Posted By
    10Pointer
  • Categories
    Science & Technology
  • Published
    5th Feb, 2021

Context

Naturally abundant resources such as wind, solar and tidal energy are being hastened as the future of the planet's energy needs.

With these, rare earth elements are also extensively used in a bevy of technologies to generate this cleaner, renewable energy. However, their usage has become a concern for ecosystem.

What are Rare earth metals?

  • Rare earth elements are found abundantly in the Earth's crust.
  • Composition: They comprise seventeen chemical elements — 15 lanthanides (anthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium), scandium and yttrium.
  • They are widely dispersed and found in low concentrations that are not economically exploitable.

Adverse effects of rare earth metals

  • Damage to health ecosystem: Many of these metals such as mercury, barium, lead, chromium and cadmium, are extremely damaging to the health of several ecosystems, including humans. 
  • Carbon emission: They are mined using extremely energy-intensive processes. Their extraction releases carbon emissions into the atmosphere and toxins into the ground.

Primary Producers

  • Until 1948, India and Brazil were the world’s primary producers of rare earth metals.
  • China (the largest reserves in the world), the United States, Brazil, India, Vietnam, Australia, Russia, Myanmar, Indonesia.

Usage

  • Electronic technologies:These elements are important in technologies of consumer electronics, computers and networks, communications, clean energy, advanced transportation, healthcare, environmental mitigation, and national defence, among others.
    • Scandium is used in televisions and fluorescent lamps, and yttrium is used in drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.
  • Defence equipments:While Rare Earth elements are used in building consumer electronics, in healthcare and transportation, they are especially important for governments because of their use in manufacturing defence equipment. 
  • Space: Rare Earth elements are used in space shuttle components, jet engine turbines, and drones.
    • Cerium, the most abundant Rare Earth element, is essential to NASA’s Space Shuttle Programme.