In 1839, Goodyear accidentally discovered vulcanization, revolutionizing tires and paving the way to the automobile age. Rubber plantations became enormously important economically, and by the end of the 19th century, rubber barons were among the wealthiest people in the world. The effects on the countries where rubber was found were not as positive.
A century ago, tropical locations were very important for their natural resources. The sources of coffee, tea, sugar, rubber, chicle, mahogany, ivory, pearls, and cotton were strategically powerful enough for European superpowers to fight to colonize them. The United States laid claim to myriad guano-covered, mostly uninhabited islands for the sake of the fertilizer they could produce.
Synthetics changed that. From tortoise shell combs to piano keys, tires to chewing gum, objects that used to be sourced in the tropics are now made much more cheaply from synthetic materials. Tropical nations generally now have their independence, but they also generally don’t have the riches they might have had if their natural resources were still the only way to make the consumer goods they used to be known for.
Rare earth minerals repeat history
Rare earth minerals (REEs) are important to the batteries used in electric vehicles, industrial permanent magnets, electronic devices, and light bulbs, among other things. Rexroth, the new name of Indramat since the 20th century, is deeply involved in improving the recycling of these batteries and therefore the conservation and stewardship of rare earth minerals.
But rare earth minerals are showing some echoes of the history of those tropical resources that European nations panted after a century ago. While China, the United States, and Australia all have large deposits of rare earth elements, many of the nations where they can be mined are the smaller, less powerful tropical nations. In these locations, the rare earth minerals may be mined with open pits that lead to contamination of water with acids and even radioactive waste. Miners are exposed to radiation, rare earth pneumoconiosis, and the same human rights abuses miners in poor countries have faced for many years.
While rubber produced wealth for colonizers and hardships for people living in rubber-producing places, rare earth minerals produce wealth for corporations and hardships for people living in countries rich in rare earth elements. Every ton of rare earth elements produced creates 2,000 tons of toxic waste. The mining is not done in the United States or Europe under strict environmental regulation. Instead, it’s done in poorer nations, and the toxins are left behind.
And now, synthetics
Rare earth elements are beginning to be synthesized. Recycling is an important piece of the puzzle for reducing the mining of rare earth elements, but synthetic REEs will probably be a more important route.
Synthetic rare earth minerals would help displace China from its current dominant position in the market, reduce the environmental destruction that comes with rare earth mining, and minimize the human cost.
Reduce, reuse, recycle, and reconfigure may be the watchwords for the industry going forward.