Rare Earths: The Hidden Cost to Their Magic

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The 17 rare earth elements are often called the spices or vitamins of industry. While we don’t need much of them, they’re sprinkled in small amounts through our most powerful, futuristic, and dare we say it, magical tools. They power our iPhones and computers; they’re in wind turbines and hybrid cars. They’re in dental implants, X-ray machines, and life-saving cancer drugs. They have unusual magnetic and electrical properties that make our gadgets faster, stronger, and lighter. And we’ve all been coasting along enjoying their magic for a while now. In fact, we’ve come to expect magic. But magic comes at a cost, and in the case of mining and processing rare earths, that cost is environmental devastation. Most of us in the Western world aren’t aware of the destruction because most rare earths are mined elsewhere. But some scientists are trying to find a more environmentally sound way to get them.

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