Rare earth minerals used in smart phones create environmental disaster in China

by Karen L. Willoughby |

(REUTERS/David Gray)Pipes coming from a rare earth smelting plant spew polluted water into a vast tailings dam near Xinguang Village, located on the outskirts of the city of Baotou in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in this October 31, 2010 picture. The massive Baogang corporation, located on the outskirts of Baotou city, churns out rare earth metals on a vast scale, and villagers living near the smelting plants and a vast tailings dam used to dump the black refuse from ore processing said the rare earths boom was threatening their livelihood and health. Air and water toxins from the plants and dam were poisoning them, their water, crops and children, they said. China supplies 97 percent of rare earths used worldwide, and they go into magnets, bearings and high-tech components that go into computers, vehicles and, increasingly, clean energy technology such as wind turbines and hybrid cars. Picture taken October 31, 2010.

BAOTOU, China (Christian Examiner) – Rare earth minerals mined for the production of smart phones have filled a lake with black sludge near this industrial city eight hours west of Beijing, China.

The sludge cascades from pipes ringing the massive artificial lake. The pipes come from factories that refine the minerals – neodymium and cerium – dug from nearby mines.

"It's a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying," wrote Tim Maughan in an article published April 2 by the BBC. "Dystopian" describes an imaginary society that is as dehumanizing and as unpleasant as possible.

"The thought that it is man-made depressed and terrified me, as did the realization that this was the byproduct not just of the consumer electronics in my pocket, but also green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars that we get so smugly excited about in the West," Maughan continued. "Unsure of quite how to react, I take photos and shoot video on my cerium polished iPhone."

Although categorized as a rare earth mineral, neodymium, used to make magnets, is as common as nickel and copper. China produces about 90 percent of the global market for neodymium but has only 30 of the world's deposits. Maughan said what drives the overproduction in China is that other countries are scared away by the environmental consequences.

"Arguably, what makes it, and cerium, scarce enough to be profitable are the hugely hazardous and toxic process needed to extract them from ore and to refine them into usable products," Maughan wrote. "For example, cerium is extracted by crushing mineral mixtures and dissolving them in sulphuric and nitric acid, and this has to be done on a huge industrial scale, resulting in a vast amount of poisonous waste as a byproduct.

The journalist took part in a three-week journey through the global supply chain that traced consumer goods sold in world markets back to production in China. The trip was set up by a group of architects, academics and designers at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, called the Unknown Fields Division. This group reports on the effects of mankind's use of the planet.

In particular, they examine consumer behavior such as frequent replacement of electronic goods just to get the most recent technology.

"Technology companies continually urge us to upgrade; to buy the newest tablet or phone. But I cannot forget that it all begins in a place like Baotou, and a terrible toxic lake that stretches to the horizon."