Substance of the Year 2011





In James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi blockbuster Avatar, ‘Unobtainium’ is a precious mineral mined on the moon ‘Pandora’.


Unfortunately for Pandora’s natives, deposits of Unobtianium (valued at $20,000,000/kg) lie just under their most sacred site. While some giggled at the term ‘Unobtainium’ (long-used by aerospace engineers to describe hard-to-procure materials), others drew uncomfortable parallels between the fictional dilemmas of Pandora and real-life issues concerning increasingly vital ‘rare earth elements’ (REEs).


REEs are 17 metallic elements, usually found together in the same mineral deposits, which share similar properties – for example, high electrical conductivity. Once thought to be rare, REEs have now been found across the Earth’s crust – although locating exploitable concentrations is problematic, and separating rees from the minerals in which they occur is complex and costly. In recent decades, REEs have proved crucial to the burgeoning high-tech, defence, and green energy sectors.


Neodymium is used in the magnets inside hard drives, cell phones, wind turbines, and hybrid cars. Lanthanum is a prime component in the battery of the Toyota Prius. (Each Prius is said to contain some 25lbs of REEs.) Terbium is critical for low-energy light bulbs; Samarium for precision-guided weaponry; Dysprosium for lasers, nuclear reactors, compact discs, and hard drives; and Erbium for fibre optics. Every new vehicle uses Yttrium for fuel efficiency, and all new TVs rely on Europium to produce the colour red.


More than 90% of the world’s REE supply is mined in China – a dominance that results from Beijing’s controversial efforts in the 1980s and ’90s to flood the market with cheap REEs, forcing out competition. In 2009 China mooted an export ban on some REEs because of growing domestic demand. Beijing later backed down, but has since imposed tight regulations and export quotas. Fearing that China’s own REE supply may be dwindling, several countries (e.g., Japan and S Korea) are stockpiling REEs, and interest has spiked in Canadian, Australian, and S African mines – though these will take some years to develop.


The lesson of rees seems to be that, as with nuclear power and oil, the world is again becoming reliant on hazardous-to-source materials found, often, in unstable places. In Africa, Tantalum (used in missiles, surgical implants, &c.) is financing the blood-soaked Second Congo War – alongside other ‘conflict minerals’ such as tin, tungsten, and gold.


As the gap widens between our shiny high-tech toys and the grind of their production, we may be forced to scrutinise the ‘ingredients’ of our electronics, in the same way that we increasingly scrutinise the ingredients of our food.