Making the most of a ‘rare earth’ opportunity

Along with being great Scrabble words, rare earth elements — with names like europium. promethium and scandium — are key components in our cellphones and other consumer electronics as well as those used in communication, national defense and in generating and storing energy from renewable resources.

“Rare earth” is a little misleading; the elements aren’t so much rare as they are concentrated in certain locations throughout the world and can be difficult to mine. China and other Asian countries, including Afghanistan, control much of the resource production of rare earth elements, making access to their supply an important link to our economy’s demand for the elements. On a whim, China can, and has, limited the market, causing prices for the materials to skyrocket.

Everett now looks to be a focus for that issue, thanks to legislation proposed by state Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor this spring. The legislation establishes the Joint Center for the Deployment and Research of Earth-Abundant Materials, which will research alternatives to rare earth elements as well as ways to more effectively recycle them from cast-off electronics, as reported in Monday’s Herald Business Journal by freelance reporter Jocelyn Robinson. (The story also will run in Thursday’s Herald.)

The joint center, whose administrative offices will be based at Washington State University North Puget Sound in Everett, will be a partnership among WSU, the University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, as well as a regional university, a community college and representatives from small, medium and large businesses. With the aerospace and other technology companies that make Snohomish County home, there’s opportunity to further strengthen the county’s connection to this effort.

This also adds the field of materials science to the growing list of programs that are offered for study at WSU’s Everett center. Paired with the capital budget outlay for WSU’s new Everett complex, which is scheduled to break ground next month, it represents a commitment to higher education in Snohomish County.

Seeking a reliable supply of alternatives to these elements or better ways to recycle them may offer a preferable path than other proposals under consideration, including reprocessing mine wastes and even harvesting asteroids in orbit.

The center’s research, Smith and others have said, may not only counter the monopoly that China and others hold on the resource but also heads off a mining process that commonly uses toxic chemicals to break the elements from their ore and can be a threat to the greater global environment.

Especially exciting is the potential to recycle the elements from old electronics. An article last year in the online magazine ensia.com reported on a study that found that the process of recycling the element neodymium from computer hard drives versus mining it from ore offered an 80 percent less toxic method and one that used 60 percent less energy, although the recycled alloy needed further processing to make it usable in making magnets.

This a field worthy of more study and one that will only increase in importance as technologies for communication, energy production, transportation and other fields advance.

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