Guess What? Rare-Earth Elements Are Now a CDO Worry

Recently, CDO Trends covered a scheme to site data centers on the moon. Farfetched?

Consider this: to what lengths will humanity go for essential minerals once we’ve exhausted our Earth’s supply?

Worth your salt

We humans suffer from normalcy bias: we tend to reject sudden changes in our paradigms. For example, we’re accustomed to purchasing standard items on the regular. Let’s say that our local supermarket has no salt for sale on any given day — we’re shocked and surprised but expect that another outlet will, or that salt will be restocked in short order.

We don’t consider salt a rare mineral. We won’t consider that supply from the salt mine may be imperiled, as salt is inexpensive and commonly available.

But that wasn’t always the case — salt was once a precious commodity. This is where our word “salary” likely originates as Roman soldiers were paid to guard the Salt Roads (Via Salaria in Latin) that led to Rome.

“Salt was prized by the ancient Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Hittites, Egyptians, and the Indians,” says Wikipedia. “The scarcity and universal need for salt have led nations to go to war over it and use it to raise tax revenues.” Salt is plentiful and inexpensive in our modern world, so we take it for granted.

Know your REEs

Less common than salt: rare-earth elements. There are approximately 17 such elements, and “compounds containing rare earths have diverse applications in electrical and electronic components, lasers, glass, magnetic materials, and industrial processes.” That list includes the tech gear we need to perform business functions.

Supply chain experts understand well the “weakest link” concept. And if a rare-earth element used in tech equipment suddenly becomes fantastically expensive or (worse) unavailable, that can affect an entire supply chain.

Geopolitics is baked into the economic equation

“Rare-earth elements (REEs) are used as components in high technology devices, including smartphones, digital cameras, computer hard disks, fluorescent and [LED] lights, flat-screen televisions, computer monitors, and electronic displays,” says the American Geosciences Institute. “Specific REEs are used individually or in combination to make phosphors — substances that emit luminescence—for many types of ray tubes and flat panel displays, in screens that range in size from smartphone displays to stadium scoreboards. Some REEs are used in fluorescent and LED lighting.”

These elements are used in the displays we look at and the magnets that spin our disk drives. “Rare-earth magnets are used in computer hard disks and CD–ROM and DVD disk drives,” says the AGI. “The spindle of a disk drive attains high stability in its spinning motion when driven by a rare-earth magnet.”

Rare-earth issues

Wikipedia presents a list of issues related to rare-earth element shortages, with a prefatory explainer: “There are many issues about these resources, and they concern a large number of people and human activities.” These crucial issues highlight the concern around these elements.

Supply chain experts understand well the “weakest link” concept

A prime issue is economic: the price of metals increases when their scarcity or inaccessibility increases, and not only according to demand for them. Given that rare-earth elements are typically mined in specific locations, geopolitics is baked into the economic equation.

“These rare products are necessary for computer and other communications equipment and can themselves be the subject of armed conflict or simply provide armed conflict with a source of funding,” says Wikipedia. “Both coltan and blood diamonds have been examples of the resource curse that plagues some parts of Africa.”

Conflict elements

The nadir of supply remains conflict resources, exemplified by “blood diamonds,” which originate in a handful of African nations. Conflict resources are “natural resources extracted in a conflict zone and sold to perpetuate the fighting.” Unfortunately, their range extends beyond diamonds.

“The provinces of North and South Kivu in the eastern DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] are filled with mines of cassiterite, wolframite, coltan, and gold — minerals needed to manufacture everything from lightbulbs to laptops, from MP3 players to Playstations,” said a 2009 article in Time Magazine. “Over the past 12 years of armed conflict in the region, control of these valuable natural resources has allegedly become a lucrative way for warring parties to purchase munitions and fund their fighting.”

Reduce, reuse, recycle

We often hear about recycling, and while it may sound preachy, it’s an essential business practice. With rare-earth elements, recycling is near-mandated.

“According to the United Nations in 2011, as the demand for rare metals will quickly exceed the consumed tonnage in 2013, it is urgent, and priority should be placed on recycling rare metals with a worldwide production lower than 100 000 tons/year, in order to conserve natural resources and energy,” says Wikipedia. “Planned obsolescence of products which contain these metals should be limited, and all elements inside computers, mobile phones or other electronic objects found in electronic waste should be recycled.”

In 2020, the European Commission announced its updated List of Critical Raw Materials. “Lithium, which is essential for a shift to e-mobility, has been added to the list for the first time,” said the E.C.

The goalposts are shifting. This regrettable situation is a sharp reminder that with rare-earth elements, conservation and recycling are more than mere buzzwords.

Stefan Hammond is a contributing editor to CDOTrends. Best practices, the IOT, payment gateways, robotics and the ongoing battle against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected]

image credit: iStockphoto/RHJ

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