Rare metals: why we’ve come to rely on them

David Abraham, a natural resource strategist and author of the book “The Elements of Power,” joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss rare metals and why we’ve come to rely on them.

TRANSCRIPT

METALS SO RARE THAT FEW OF US HAVE EVEN HEARD OF THEM HAVE BECOME THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF MODERN SOCIETY.

THEY'RE FOUND IN EVERYTHING FROM ELECTRONICS TO MILITARY AND GREEN TECHNOLOGIES.

BUT WHAT ARE THESE RARE METALS?

AND WHY HAVE WE COME TO RELY ON THEM?

JOINING ME NOW IS DAVID ABRAHAM, A NATURAL-RESOURCE STRATEGIST AND AUTHOR OF THE BOOK 'THE ELEMENTS OF POWER.'

SO, WE WERE JUST HAVING A CONVERSATION OFF-CAMERA ABOUT THE FACT THAT I BOUGHT A STUD FINDER THAT HAD SOME RARE METAL IN IT, AND THEY BRAG ABOUT THE FACT THAT IT'S A RARE METAL IN IT.

AND THEN I'M SAYING TO MYSELF, 'WELL, IF IT'S SO RARE, HOW CAN IT BE IN THIS COMMONPLACE ITEM?'

SURE. WHAT WE THINK ABOUT RARE METALS -- I TALK ABOUT THE AMOUNT THEY'RE PRODUCED IN COMPARED TO BASE METALS, LIKE IRON OR ZINC.

THOSE ARE PRODUCED IN THE MILLIONS OF TONS ANNUALLY.

A LOT OF THESE ARE IN THE THOUSANDS OF TONS OR THE HUNDREDS OF TONS OR LESS.

AND WE'RE FINDING THAT THEY'RE UBIQUITOUS, BUT THEY'RE USED IN SUCH SMALL QUANTITIES THAT THEY'RE ALMOST AFTERTHOUGHTS.

WHEN WE THINK ABOUT PIZZA, WE THINK ABOUT THE QUALITY OF THE CHEESE THAT GOES IN THE PIZZA OR THE QUALITY OF THE TOMATO SAUCE.

WHAT WE DON'T THINK ABOUT IS YEAST.

MM-HMM.

BUT WITHOUT YEAST, THERE'S NO PIZZA.

AND WITHOUT NEODYMIUM, THERE AREN'T ENERGY-EFFICIENT AIR CONDITIONERS.

SO, THE ENERGY-EFFICIENT AIR CONDITIONERS -- I MEAN, WHEN YOU START TO SHIFT AWAY FROM NEODYMIUM, IF IT'S SO RARE, THEN THAT COULD ACTUALLY HAVE A PRETTY MASSIVE EFFECT, CONSIDERING HOW MUCH POWER, COLLECTIVELY, AIR CONDITIONERS SOAK UP.

EXACTLY.

WHEN WE LOOK BACK AT 2010, WHEN CHINA STOPPED EXPORTING RARE-EARTH ELEMENTS TO JAPAN, YOU SAW A NUMBER OF COMPANIES, IN GREEN TECH AND ELSEWHERE, TRYING TO GET AWAY FROM USING THESE PARTICULAR SUBSET OF RARE METALS.

AND THAT HAS A LARGE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT, BECAUSE WHEN AN AIR CONDITIONER IS 25% OR 30% LESS EFFICIENT -- WHEN IT'S JUST ONE, IT'S NOT A BIG DEAL, BUT WHEN YOU'RE TALKING ALL OF THESE AIR CONDITIONERS AROUND THE WORLD, WHEN COMPANIES ARE SHYING AWAY FROM USING A LOT OF THESE MATERIALS BECAUSE OF GEOPOLITICAL CONCERNS, YOU HAVE A LARGE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT THAT'S NOT OFTEN SEEN WITHOUT ANALYZING.

SO, THE GEOPOLITICAL CONCERN IS KIND OF AN INTERESTING TAKE ON IT, BECAUSE YOU DON'T NECESSARILY THINK ABOUT THE FACT THAT SOME COUNTRY OR SOME COMPANY, USUALLY CONTROLLED BY A STATE, A MINING CONCERN OR WHATEVER, OWNS THE MINE WHERE THIS COMES FROM, WHICH GIVES THEM SOME LEVERAGE IN CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ALL SORTS OF OTHER THINGS.

'HEY, YOU WANT US TO DO BETTER ON HUMAN RIGHTS?

WELL, YOU BETTER LOOK THE OTHER WAY ON THIS' OR THE OTHER -- YOU KNOW, INVERSE.

WE SEE THAT THROUGHOUT THE SUPPLY CHAIN.

IT'S NOT JUST THE MINE, ESPECIALLY FOR A LOT OF THESE RARE METALS.

THE GETTING IT OUT OF THE GROUND IS ALMOST THE EASY PART.

PROCESSING THEM CAN TAKE A LONG TIME, AND FOR MANY OF THESE, LIKE, RARE-EARTH ELEMENTS, IT'S A TRICKY SCIENTIFIC BALANCE TO GET THE RIGHT ACIDS AND THE RIGHT HEAT AND UNDERSTANDING HOW TO BRING THE METALS FROM THE MINERALS.

IT TAKES A LONG TIME TO UNDERSTAND HOW TO DO THAT.

THERE'S NOT ALWAYS A COOKBOOK, WHERE YOU CAN OPEN UP THE RECIPE.

SO, WHEN YOU MASTER THE ART OF PROCESSING, IT ALSO GIVES YOU A LARGER GEOPOLITICAL STATUS, AS WELL.

SO, HOW MUCH MORE DO WE CONSUME RARE METALS TODAY THAN WE USED TO?

WE CONSUME -- IF YOU LOOK BACK TO THE BEGINNING OF TIME TO ABOUT THE LATE 1980s AND TAKE THAT TIME PERIOD AND THEN LOOK AT SINCE THE 1980s, WHEN WE STARTED TO USE MORE HIGH-TECH GOODS AND GADGETS, YOU'LL SEE THAT WE USE ROUGHLY -- BETWEEN 1990 AND NOW, ROUGHLY FOUR TIMES MORE MATERIALS DURING THAT TIME PERIOD THAN WE HAVE SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME TO THE 1980s.

THE REASON IS BECAUSE OF OUR GADGETS -- THE LIGHTS IN THE STUDIOS.

WE'RE USING MORE ELEMENTS OF THE PERIODIC TABLE, BECAUSE THE SMARTPHONE OF TODAY USES ROUGHLY HALF THE ELEMENTS KNOWN TO MAN.

BUT THE GADGETS WE USED JUST 20, 25 YEARS AGO WERE USING A THIRD LESS OR SO.

SO, WHAT HAPPENS, THEN, NOT JUST TO THE WASTE THAT'S CREATED WHEN I DECIDE TO RECYCLE OR GIVE BACK OR WHATEVER MY SMARTPHONE, BUT IF THERE IS ONLY, YOU KNOW, AN INCREDIBLY SMALL QUANTITY OF THIS, SHOULDN'T SOMEONE BE INCENTIVIZED TO SAY, 'HEY, LET ME TAKE THE WHATEVER REALLY SPECIAL METAL OUT OF YOUR SMARTPHONE SO I CAN REUSE IT SOMEWHERE'? I MEAN, WILL WE RUN OUT?

YOU HIGHLIGHT THE CHALLENGE OF RECYCLING.

WHEN YOU LOOK AT THE SMARTPHONE AND IT HAS HALF THE ELEMENTS KNOWN TO MAN, WE'D LOVE TO BE ABLE TO EXTRACT THEM OUT.

BUT WE DON'T HAVE THE SCIENTIFIC CAPABILITY, WE DON'T HAVE THE SUPPLY CHAIN TO BRING EVERY METAL OUT.

AT BEST, WE'RE RECOVERING ABOUT 20 METALS, AND THAT'S AT BEST.

THERE IS NOT A LOT OF ECONOMIC INCENTIVE BECAUSE WE'VE BEEN GETTING GOOD AT TAKING SOME METALS OUT OF THE NATURAL ORES THAT THEY'RE FOUND IN.

BUT EACH PHONE IS A DIFFERENT ORE BODY.

IT'S UNIQUE.

AND TO LEARN HOW TO EXTRACT IT FROM JUST ONE PHONE WOULD BE A CHALLENGE, BUT WHEN YOU'RE PUTTING THEM ALL TOGETHER IN THIS NEW AMALGAMATION OF CRUNCHED-UP iPHONES, IT'S A REAL SCIENTIFIC CHALLENGE TO PULL ALL THE ELEMENTS.

AND WHAT WE FIND OUT IS THAT, FOR MOST OF THESE RARE METALS, THEIR RECYCLING RATES ARE LOWER THAN 1%. SO WE'RE NOT DOING A VERY GOOD JOB OF GETTING THEM OUT, AND WE DON'T HAVE THE COLLECTION SYSTEMS TO ENSURE THAT THIS COMPONENT GOES HERE SO WE CAN RECYCLE THE PARTICULAR RARE METAL.

IS THERE ANY GOING BACK?

I MEAN, IT DOESN'T SEEM LIKE SOCIETY'S GONNA SAY, 'YOU KNOW WHAT?

LET'S GO START USING WOOD BLOCKS AGAIN FOR EVERYTHING.'

EXACTLY.

THE FUTURE IS NOT MADE FROM WOOD, ROPE, AND NAILS.

WE'RE GOING TO USE MORE OF THESE MATERIALS, AND IT'S A GOOD THING THAT WE'RE ABLE TO HARNESS THE POWER OF THESE MATERIALS.

THE QUESTION IS -- HOW CAN WE HAVE THESE PRODUCTS LAST LONGER?

HOW DO WE DEVELOP WAYS THAT WE'RE NOT JUST BURNING THROUGH THE COMMODITIES?

EVERY TIME WE THROW AWAY A CELLPHONE, WE THROW AWAY HALF THE ELEMENTS KNOWN TO MAN.

WE HAVE TO BE ABLE TO DEVELOP SYSTEMS OF CREATING A CIRCULAR ECONOMY.

AND THERE ARE STEPS THAT WE'RE MOVING IN THAT DIRECTION.

ALL RIGHT, DAVID ABRAHAM, THE AUTHOR OF 'THE ELEMENTS OF POWER.'

THANKS SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH.