Top News

Editorial: Mining for rarities

This is not your usual editorial.

But sometimes, the sheer wonder of how interconnected the world is just has to be mentioned.

Right now, a mining company is preparing to build a mine near St. Lewis, Labrador. The mine, trundling through the provincial and federal environmental assessment program, would run for 14 years, eight of them as an open pit, another six working underground, employing 139 during the open pit period and 222 once operations move underground.

But it’s not gold or iron ore or anything like that.

No, this mine is all about the smartphones we all carry pretty much constantly.

This particular mine is going to be looking for elements so rare that you may not have even heard of them before. Think of it this way: carbon, nitrogen and oxygen are numbers 6, 7 and 8 on the periodic table of elements.

In Labrador, they intend to mine elements 59, 60, 63, 65, 66 and 39.

This particular mine is going to be looking for elements so rare that you may not have even heard of them before.

Try saying this 10 times fast: neodymium, praseodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium.

They’re all part of the rare earth metals group, and they have a surprising number of uses, despite their rarity. All six will be mined at the Foxtrot Rare Earth Element Mine.

Here’s what the proponents of the mine, Search Minerals, say about the metals on their provincial environmental assessment registration: “The amount of rare earths used in high tech equipment is nominal but almost always critical to the unit’s performance. For example, an iPhone uses eight rare earths – for everything from its coloured screen, to its speakers, to the miniaturization of the phone’s circuitry. While the amount of rare earths in each phone is very small, the quantity of phones sold each year is impressive. According to Apple, in 2012 over 125 million iPhones were sold worldwide, up from 72 million in 2011.”

Neodymium, for example, is needed to make small but powerful magnets used in things like speakers and hard drives to make the equipment smaller and more effective. Praseodymium makes metals strong enough for aircraft engines, and also makes the glass found in welders’ visors. Yttrium and terbium? You’ll find them in visual displays like computers and phones.

What’s also interesting is that almost all of the rare earth metals that are used in such tiny but crucial amounts come from one source: China.

And soon, if all the hurdles are met to properly design and build the mine and mill, they may come from Labrador, too.

All set to travel a world away, find their way into the industrial process, and end up in your phone, in amounts so small, you’d never be able to find them.

We have built a fascinating world. If only we invested so much time and effort in protecting it.

Recent Stories