Rare earths
Univ.-Prof. Prof. mult. Dr.-Ing. agr. Jörg Rinklebe / Soil and Groundwater Management
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'Rare earths`: Irresponsible mining for rich industrial nations

Soil and groundwater expert Jörg Rinklebe on the export of environmental problems and the long-term consequences of the use of mineral resources for the digitization process

"Digitization is inconceivable without 'rare earths`," says Professor Jörg Rinklebe, head of the Soil and Groundwater Management teaching and research area at Bergische Universität, while pointing out that the mining of these substances has and will increasingly have dramatic consequences for humans and the environment if the world does not swiftly adopt changes in standards in both production and recycling operations.

Many technical devices without 'rare earths' are hardly conceivable

Anyone who has followed their chemistry lessons closely knows what 'rare earths` are and where to classify them. "They are elements on the periodic table," Rinklebe begins, "that were once thought to occur naturally only rarely in the environment." There would be elements like scandium or yttrium, and then a distinction would be made between light rare earth elements (e.g., cerium, praseodymium or neodynium) and heavy rare earth elements (e.g., gadolinium, terbium or holmium). The incredibly large application potential makes the 'rare earths` so attractive, he said. "You can start with agriculture. There they are added as fertilizers to increase yields, or as feed additives in animal production to boost biomass production," explains the expert, "but above all in every electronic device we have 'rare earths`, whether it is a screen, a cell phone, a laptop or a computer, 'rare earths` are everywhere. Also for batteries, when we talk about electromobility and related electric cars, we need mainly lithium and cobalt and rare earth elements. Wind turbines also have 'rare earths`. Many technical devices can hardly be thought of otherwise."

High international demand under catastrophic mining conditions

The main mining areas of 'rare earths` are in China, Australia and the USA. One of the largest finds has now recently been made in Sweden. But as nice as it is to have raw materials in Europe, the Swedish deposit plays only a minor role in international competition. "The deposit in Sweden was estimated at 1 million tons," explains Rinklebe, "the global transport of 'rare earths' we rather calculate in hundreds of millions of tons. So you already know Sweden is certainly not going to significantly shift global supply chains."

However, the mining is criticized by environmentalists because the removal could create wastewater ponds that, filled with acids, heavy metals, rare earth elements and radioactive material, could then also enter the groundwater. China's main mining site is therefore also considered a 'hell on earth'. And yet "we need rare earths (...) to make the transition to a climate-safe future," says Michele Bustamante, a sustainability researcher at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. Of course, we know that mining causes a lot of environmental damage, and in countries like Central and Latin America, the additional problem is that those responsible have no regard for environmental damage or humane working conditions, Rinklebe knows, and emphasizes: "There is zero occupational safety, zero climate protection, zero environmental protection! Local people have a lower life expectancy, so they die earlier, and there is child labor without any environmental standards." Rinklebe also emphasizes this at his many international Nature conference presentations. "Germany and Europe are oh so pure and clean, after all. We are, after all, quite great with our e-mobility, for making sure that we have clean air in Europe and also here in Germany." But he said we also have a responsibility here in the West to pay attention to both the funding conditions and the disposal, and there is a very great need for action. "Rare earths are mined in countries like China, Brazil and Latin America under the most inhumane conditions. There we have major contamination of the soil, water and air. These 'rare earths` are transported to the rich industrialized countries, processed there and finally sent back to the countries of origin as electronic scrap." Ghana in West Africa, for example, has uncontrollable waste dumps where electronic waste from all over the world is deposited. There also the press-effective attendance of the German Minister of Economics is little helpful. During partial incineration, the people there either inhale the toxic substances that are produced, or the 'rare earths' are washed out into the soil, resulting in large-scale contamination. "I.e., if we need electronic devices, that includes electromobility, then we also have to worry about the extraction conditions and about disposal. There, too, we have to think globally in a circular way. Otherwise, and this is the big reproach we have to give ourselves as rich industrialized countries, we export our environmental problems."

One of the ways Rinklebe is studying this global problem is with his local collaborators. "Here in my laboratory, we are able to measure 'rare earths` and are currently obtaining soil samples from Ghana from such contaminated sites, which we then analyze here. For the past year, we have also had a new large-scale instrument, which enables us to work even more precisely.

Rare earths are cost-intensive to mine, but are needed for the production of strong permanent magnets used in electromobility and renewable energies. Pictured: iron ore mining next to the Styrian town of Erzberg.
(Image: public domain / CC0 )

Demand for 'rare earths' will increase fivefold by 2030

The urgency of Rinklebe's call is shown by the forecast demand for 'rare earths' alone, which is estimated to increase fivefold by 2030 because the EU does not want to completely ban new cars with internal combustion engines until 2035. Therefore, he said, contracts with countries such as China or Latin America cannot be canceled. "But in the case of new contracts, it is our task as Germany to ensure that if we source 'rare earths' from countries such as China or Latin America, minimum standards in labor law/workplace safety and environmental protection are also observed locally there. Then we have to pay more to finance cell phones, laptops, etc. That is the contribution we need to make to a more socially just and clean world with a sustainability claim."

Raising awareness of dangers

Environmental problems always go hand in hand with social problems, Rinklebe knows, and especially in Asia, where he regularly works, there has often been a great deal of ignorance about the dangers of pollution in the past. "They often point to the West and say, yes, you guys did that too, you also boosted your economy in the last 300 years and didn't take the environment into account. That's true, is my answer, if you look at the industry here in Wuppertal, they never thought about the environment. That's why we also have to deal with contaminated sites today. But I always reply: first of all, the knowledge wasn't there back then, and an important point that has to be added is that the technologies to at least minimize this environmental damage didn't exist back then either." Today, he said, we are in a position to produce more sustainably and in a more environmentally friendly way, which costs more at the moment, but not in the long term. "Therefore, we must ensure today in advance that these environmentally harmful substances do not get into the environment in the first place, that we produce more cleanly so that less remediation is required afterwards. Economically, that's definitely more cost-effective."

1000 questions to 2000 scientists

From September 6 to 10, Rinklebe is now organizing one of the largest conferences on the subject, which will take place in Wuppertal for the first time internationally with around 2000 scientists* from 76 nations. "Our expert colleagues come from all areas of environmental research and human health research. The motto of our conference is 'Clean Environment, Human Health, our Future', which means protect human health, protect the environment, because that is our future. This will certainly have a great impact beyond Wuppertal, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany and Europe. We want to take this issue out into the world. The scientists will come together again after Corona. Especially during the coffee breaks and evening events, the enormously important discussions and networking will take place. New projects will emerge and we also hope to be able to give impulses to society and politics. It's scientific exchange to understand and solve previously unknown problems."

Uwe Blass 

Univ.- Prof. mult. Dr.-Ing. agr. Jörg Rinklebe has been Professor of Soil and Groundwater Management at the University of Wuppertal since 2006. He is considered one of the most influential scientists in his field worldwide. His work is very frequently cited, which is why he was named a "Highly Cited Researcher." He is ranked 4th on the world ranking list for environmental sciences, with only a few German scientists ever listed among the top 100. From 1997 to 2006, he worked as a scientist, research associate and project leader in the Soil Research Section of the UFZ Environmental Research Centre Leipzig-Halle GmbH in Halle. He studied ecology for one year at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland (UK). At Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, he studied agriculture and specialized in soil science and plant nutrition.

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