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Environmental Science

environmental science

(New, environmentally friendly method to extract and separate rare earth elements [3]Link opens in a new window)

Cleaning up our polluting emissions will, if we don’t change something, end up making the planet dirtier. At the heart of this sustainability paradox are rare earths, those peculiar metals that have become indispensable for manufacturing everything from smartphones to wind turbines. This critical resource was almost exclusively in the hands of China and the current scramble for dominance also threatens the geopolitical balance of power. It is one of the main fronts in the ongoing trade war with the other superpower, the US—against the backdrop of the coup in Myanmar, a country until recently almost as ignored as these chemical elements pushed to the bottom of the periodic table [1]Link opens in a new window.

While rare earth can promote technological revolution, it may also cause extreme environmental pollutions. The consequence has been an environmental nightmare in Inner Mongolia, the Chinese region where the world’s largest rare-earth mines are located. Their activity has even createdan artificial lake, filled with toxic waste,Link opens in a new window and pollution has found its way into the food chain, causing public health problems. This has been one of the hidden costs of the revolutionary transformation of consumer electronics. A clear example of this is today’s small, lightweight headphones, which deliver a sound quality previously only available from large speakers, and which are made possible by tiny, powerful neodymium magnets. In general, the spectacular miniaturisation of electronic components in recent decades would not have been possible without rare earths. Without them, there would be no smartphones, but neither would there be rechargeable batteries (which power our digital lives thanks to lanthanum) or LED screens (which are coloured by europium) or high-pressure samarium lasers, essential for many industrial and military applications [1]Link opens in a new window.

Fortunately, rare earths are not rare in the sense of scarcity. They are not raw materials at risk of extinction. They are far more abundant than real gold, and are found in greater proportions in the earth’s crust than such common metals as zinc, lead or tin. However, their mining and processing are so complex and polluting that they force us to look for other ways if we want to cut the CO2 emissions that have led to the climate emergency, without creating other serious environmental problems. Numerous countries are candidates to host rare-earth mines, but social rejection of this activity means that many prospecting projects never get the green light. Faced with this situation, governments and large companies are launching ambitious programmes to recycle rare earths, aware that the landfills where our gadgets end up have become important deposits of these precious metals. Thus, in 2020 Apple announced that itonly uses 100% recycled rare earthsLink opens in a new window for the manufacture of all the models in its iPhone 12 lineup [1]Link opens in a new window.

Quite apart from trade wars, geopolitical balances and the green strategies of large multinationals, rare earths pose a dilemma that affects us all individually. The current pace of commercialisation of electronic devices with an ephemeral lifespan is not compatible with the transition to greener energy and transport. We cannot have an increasingly hyper-connected, low-emission society without a cost: either we change our technology consumption and recycling habits, or that cost will once again be paid by the planet [1]Link opens in a new window.



Rare Earth Elements Education Resources for Environmental Science

Rare Earth Metals: Will we have enough? [2]Link opens in a new window

Here, we summuarized education resources for teaching Rare Earth Elements in the Environmental Science course in the following examboards:


Assessment and Qualifcations Alliance (AQA)

Environmental Science (7447)


3.2.3 Mineral resources 

3.3 Energy resources 

3.4 Pollution 

3.6 Sustainability 

3.6.2 Energy 


International Baccalaureate (IB)

Environmental Systems and Societies


3. Biodiversity and conservation  

7. Climate change and energy production  

8. Human systems and resource use 





For Further Curriculum information, please visit the following examboard website.

Assessment and Qualifcations Alliance (AQA)

International Baccalaureate (IB)