Rare earths and the Green IT paradox

Lynas Malaysia protestIn Malaysia there is a heated discussion about a rare earth metal plant being built by Australian miner Lynas.

The use of rare earth elements in IT technology has increased dramatically over the past years. New, advanced battery, magnet and optoelectronics technology is depending on the use of these rare earth metals. Rare earth magnets are small, lightweight, and have high magnetic strength so have become a key part of the miniaturization of electronic products. The key rare earth metals in magnets are neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium. For example neodymium is an important metal for hard disks. Another major use of rare earth oxides is in metal alloys. High performance alloys involving rare earth metals have an important uses in computer memory chips. Rare earth metals (particularly erbium) also act as laser amplifiers in increasingly important fibre optic communication cables.

For years, warnings have been sounded regarding an impending shortage of rare earth metals. At the current moment China produces more than 90% of the world’s rare earths supply.

A plant, being built by Australian miner Lynas, in Malaysian could break China’s domination. Within two years the plant is expected to meet a third of world demand for the materials outside China and will yield $1.7 billion a year in exports.

Rare earths are hard to refine. It is challenging to separate trace elements of minerals from large amounts of ore in an environmentally safe way (rare-earth mining produces radioactive waste). Following public concern that radioactive waste (thorium) produced by the plant would not be disposed of properly and could endanger local residents and the environment. Malaysia has put the project in eastern Pahang state on hold temporarily.

Environmentalists feared it could be a repeat of the radiation disaster similar to Bukit Merah, Perak, in 1987. The Bukit Merah disaster has been linked to eight cases of leukaemia, with seven resulting in death. The plant was closed following public anger, but the refinery is still undergoing a cleaning-up process worth 100 million dollar.

In Australia, its lawmakers have called on their government to halt shipments of radioactive rare earth to Malaysia.Two members of the West Australian Legislative Council from the Green Party – Lynn MacLaren and Robin Chapple – want the state government led by Premier Colin Barnett to take action against the proposed export of rare earth containing radioactive Thorium 232 to Malaysia. They warned that radiation levels of the material are just shy of the level that would trigger special export licence requirements for hazardous materials.

A UN nuclear energy experts panel is in Malaysia to investigate whether a planned rare-earth refinery may pose a risk of radioactive pollution. The scope of the expert panel’s review embraces transport, radiation protection (occupational, public and environmental), safety assessment, waste management as well as decommissioning and environmental remediation. Malaysian authorities are expected to decide whether to let the plant proceed with refining ore from Western Australia after the panel submits its report next month.

This case shows a very confronting paradox. Green technology and Green IT needs rare earth metals. But if not done properly, mining and refining rare earth metals can have huge environmental, health and safety consequences.

Then you are making and using greening technology by devastating polluting activities.

Lynas Plant

The Lynas plant