Mind & Matter


The Hunt for Rare Earths Turns Seaward

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If the 19th-century U.S. western expansion was catalyzed by the lure of gold, today’s technology boom is fueled significantly by the availability of dysprosium, neodymium, and lanthanum. The so-called rare earth metals have become essential to the operation of technologies ranging from smart phones to hybrid car engines.

China’s domination of the production of these elements has led to geopolitical friction, especially in the relationship between China and Japan, which is a major importer of rare earth metals from China. As a result, Japan has begun to identify new sources of the elements on the Pacific seabed, which Japanese scientists claim holds a wealth of rare earth metals.

Harvesting these materials from the ocean floor is currently cost-prohibitive, but increased commodity prices and demand could fuel exploratory mining in the Pacific. An alternative strategy would be to minimize or eliminate the use of rare earth elements in new products altogether, following nature’s example of employing a relatively small number of elements—such as carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen—as building blocks for living organisms.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.