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21 September 2022

Why rare earth metals “hold the key to our future”

In Radio 4’s The Scramble for Rare Earths, Misha Glenny explains how this small group of elements has replaced natural gas and oil as the critical raw material of the next century.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In his 2008 book McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld, the journalist Misha Glenny explored a secretive black market in which warlords and mafia bosses from across the globe were conducting dodgy deals with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other central African countries. They were trading weapons to warring factions not in exchange for drugs, but “rare earth elements”.

Glenny’s new radio series The Scramble for Rare Earths, airing throughout the week on BBC Radio 4, explores how this small group of metals has replaced natural gas and oil as the critical raw material that defines a “brutal competition” for natural resources between China, the US and Europe. In his words, these metals “hold the key to our future”.

The term “rare earths” refers to 17 chemically similar elements (15 lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium), and is something of a misnomer. They were named as such when they were first discovered in the late 1700s, but we now know that they proliferate. These metals often have magnetic and electronic properties that lend them a “vast and wondrous array of applications” – cerium is used to colour glass, and is found in pink glassware and rose-coloured spectacles, but is also used as a “signal booster” that enables global internet communications. Yttrium and europium are used in smartphone batteries and display screens, and samarium is used to treat lung cancer. Some have crucial green-energy applications – such as in wind turbines or electric car batteries, making them vital for the move away from fossil fuels.

In the first episode, Glenny explains how China dominated the mining and refining of these materials (as early as 1992, Deng Xiaoping observed “the Middle East has oil, China has the rare earths”). Later episodes in this insightful series explore the potentially harmful environmental impacts of mining rare earth metals, the role of neodymium magnets in the transition to green energy, and the huge amounts of rare earth minerals in Ukraine.  

The Scramble for Rare Earths
BBC Radio 4, weekdays from 26 September, 1.45pm

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[See also: Can animals count? BBC radio finds out]

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This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke