Dr William Wei, Materials Engineering Consultant, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, email@example.com
This article is a reply to the Comment "Don't stop using rare earths" [Materials Today (2012), 15(4), 134].
Think first before using rare earths - that is the message that comes to my mind after reading Prof. Wall’s Comment “Don’t stop using rare earths” [Materials Today (2012), 15(4), 134]. The positive tenor of the comment may be regarded as disturbing, and gives pause for thought when considering developments in rare earths, or in any new materials technology for that matter. It reminds me of the short-sighted thinking which has brought us the environmental and political problems and issues we face today, the short-sighted thinking which was exposed through the book “Silent Spring” and the hard battles fought since the 1960s/1970s to, among others, reduce emissions from the use of fossil fuels, to provide accountability for the many chemical plant accidents which have occurred around the world due to unscrupulous manufacturers trying to avoid environmental regulations “back home”, and to deal with problems with nuclear waste materials.
Although Prof. Wall mentions problems with radioactive wastes and the complex processing required to extract rare earths as a challenge to setting up new mines, this is discussed within a framework which implies that given time, the problems will be solved and the world can dig up and extract all of the rare earths it needs to supply, ironically enough, new environmental technologies. Is it just a matter of time?
Time: What will the world do generations from now when we have to ruin more landscapes and mine more deeply for those materials? What will the world do with all of the chemical and radioactive wastes which get spilled or dumped into the earth, and/or spewed into the air in order to extract them? And what do those generations do when they run out of rare earths? I am not a rare earths expert, nor am I per se against rare earths. However, one only needs to Google the words “rare earths”, “extraction”, and “environment” to see that the extraction of these materials is already a grave concern, even in China, where most of these elements are coming from at the moment.
It is indeed a matter of patience, as Prof. Wall writes, but not just to overcome the challenges of developing new deposits. Time and patience are also required to find better, durable, and integrated materials solutions for applications now using rare earths, and not just to solve short-term problems of supply and demand.
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