The intriguing thing about both neodymium and cerium is that while they’re called rare earth minerals, they’re actually fairly common. Neodymium is no rarer than copper or nickel and quite evenly distributed throughout the world’s crust. While China produces 90% of the global market’s neodymium, only 30% of the world’s deposits are located there. 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.
More reading on neodymium, with this story focused on its global sourcing. This mineral is so prevalent in consumer electronics, it feels like a very important and underreported resource.
It could be argued that China’s dominance of the rare earth market is less about geology and far more about the country’s willingness to take an environmental hit that other nations shy away from.
Seems like there’s a correlation between the offshoring of industrial production and the establishment of stricter environmental policy in the 70s and 80s. It may be fair to say it’s less the country’s willingness to create toxic sites as it is the lack of safeguards against it.
And there’s no better place to understand China’s true sacrifice than the shores of Baotou toxic lake. Apparently created by damming a river and flooding what was once farm land, the lake is a “tailings pond”: a dumping ground for waste byproducts.
Whenever I spend time out in Colorado, I see the landscape as a kind of postindustrial wasteland: tailings piles, abandoned mines, and even the evolution of mining trams into chair lifts. Those landscapes are leftover from the last century’s mineral extraction of precious metals—gold, silver, copper—that fueled and funded westward expansion.
For how different they are, one thing that America and China have in common is their landmass. Huge, nations, spanning continents. With all that space, it becomes easy to find far-flung areas where industrial processes and wastes can flow outside awareness for the people they serve—which, based on the piece, is the global electronics market.