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Rare Earth Elements And Tech

Rare Earth Elements are the chemistry class of 17 individual elements which, though not rare in a typical sense, only occur in reserves in a few key locations. These elements are used in almost all modern tech, from smartphones to computers to relays to servers. Touchscreens need indium tin oxide to function properly, and mark the change from pressure sensitive screens to true touchscreens.

These elements are all completely unique, and few have any possible substitute that could be used in their place. In the last 10 years there has been heavy scientific research around the world to find replacements for REEs, but with no avail. The unique properties of each element mean that if resources simply vanished, then there would be nothing able to take their place. If indium tin oxide was no longer available, no more touchscreens, and modern smartphones would become a thing of the past.

With the worldwide geological distribution of REEs, there are a few main reserves which can be accessed. The first major one was in Sweden, and 4 of the REEs are named after this place. Reserves here aren't massive, but because Sweden is part of the EU, they put these resources out to the global market at a very fair price. This was great for people worldwide, as it allowed everyone greater access to technology, but what happens when a country doesn't want to export these metals?

The main historic example of this would be China, which produces a monumental amount of REEs, topping the market at over 95% of the worlds production. The massive new demand for these elements means that large scale, open cast mining operations are now viable in China, and they are developing a stockpile of these commodities. But this came with a massive risk to the rest of the world, what if China simply stopped trading? They would grow as a technological superpower, while the rest of the world would fall to the wayside. This is exactly what they tried to do with their 2009 export decrease. By monopolizing the market for these crucial resources, then lowering supply, they increased the value and rarity, greatly increasing their net worth, albeit with a strain on international relations.

The Chinese trend of lowering export volume continued year after year, with a 30% drop in 2010 and a further 10% drop in 2011. 2012 saw a 20% drop in export volumes, while their mining operations continued uninhibited. For obvious reasons, the rest of the world did not enjoy these price hikes, and technology companies across the globe suffered. Finally, in 2014, US President Obama appealed to the WTO to reconsider the Fair Trade Agreement, and managed to fix export amounts so the whole world could enjoy better access to technology. But this brings up an interesting point; what would happen if a war were to occur?

If the global super-reserve of Rare Earth Elements suddenly stopped exporting its goods, then how would the rest of the world cope? Technology would quickly become much more expensive again, with fewer and fewer companies able to mass produce computers and smartphones. Most countries are already worried about this, and are stockpiling REEs just incase, but that does not fix the problem, only delay it. You can get a small amount of REEs from recycling, but for mass producing tech? These resources will run out.

It's estimated that our current known resources will last another 50 years before production grinds to a halt. But what are the alternatives? After this, you will have to mine in places nobody wants people to mine. The Amazon forest, the nature reserves around Mongolia, the Alaskan Oceans; all important ecological features to be preserved, but at the cost of people having computers in their pockets instead of the size of rooms? Only time will tell.


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