They are called lanthanides. Without these 15 chemical elements couldn’t work any smartphone, no electric and no wind. 80% of these elements has China, trading them in exchange of scientific and technical knowledge. Forget big data: the main advantage of the global economy is here

This is the story of 70 elements, 15 rare earth elements and half enabled phones, 50 million tons of waste, and one country — China-which alone controls a large part of this huge economy items. A history of the world, confident that he is freed from matter, preferring digital technology, and thus, as never before, bound hand and foot, dependent on those who control the commodities cycle, from production to handling and processing. First and foremost is the history of the planet where it is believed that the power is in the hands of those who owns the data the end user, from Google to Facebook, while in reality the ball from century to century again proceeds to the control of the natural resources.

Resources with them that we start. Lanthanum, terbium, praseodymium, neodymium, europium, gadolinium, dysprosium. No, we’re not talking about some alien substances and even borrowed these names in a science fiction novel. These elements are called lanthanides and you can find them in the periodic table of the elements in F-block — the penultimate in the lower part of the table apart from the rest. If you believe that such a location implies a minor role, you are seriously mistaken. These 15 chemical elements due to its luminescent properties and electrical conductivity — the real beating heart of the digital economy. Without them there would be no smartphones, no digital revolution they spawned. Here are a few examples. Without India there would be touchscreens; without yttrium, dysprosium, europium, gadolinium, lanthanum and terbium screens would not be colored. Without neodymium and gadolinium would not be the microphones, which gives us the ability to talk and send voice messages, without dysprosium, praseodymium and terbium would be no vibrating alerts.

Smartphones Huawei store in Shanghai

In the media and traditional literature, these elements are called rare earth, although they are not associated with the land and are not of particular rarity. By the way, cerium is the 26th place among the elements, which are abundant in the earth’s crust, neodymium on our planet more than gold and even thulium, the rarest in the nature of the lanthanide, is more common than iodine. The problem however is that these materials, as suggests the etymology of the word (lanthanein — from the Greek “to remain hidden”, “hide”), contained in a rocky ore bastnesite and monazite, and they are very difficult to separate from the rest of the elements, given the very similar chemical and physical properties. Problem: their production was very costly because they are difficult to detect in such a high concentration, which would justify work from an economic point of view. But that’s not all: mining and processing of rare earth elements associated with serious environmental pollution, and here we are talking about hundreds of gallons of salt water, which are polluted in just a minute about the use of toxic materials during the cleansing process about radioactive waste remaining as a result of processing.

The lanthanides are not opening recent history. Discovered in Ytterby near Sweden’s capital of Stockholm in 1787. As they showed very similar physical and chemical properties, they were difficult to separate. So when you open them, they for many years remained in the laboratory. It took 90 years to they began to be used for commercial purposes.

In 1884 rare earth elements first used in the manufacture of lampshades in the industry of gas illumination. The second commercial application of rare earth elements has occurred in 1903, when mischmetal (alloy of rare earth elements — approx. ed.) was used for the production of flint in lighters. In 1911, the rare earth elements added to the glass composition to dye it. In the 1930-ies the company “Kodak” (Kodak) used them to increase the index of refraction in their lenses. After the Second world war, the lanthanides allowed to create color TVs, thanks to the neodymium soared into the sky Intercontinental missiles, and with Samaria earned nuclear reactors.

Needless to remind, but to change the rules of the game, making the lanthanides heart of technological innovation, decided to Deng Xiaoping. “In the middle East has oil and China has rare earths” — he said in his speech to the Politburo of the Chinese Communist party in 1992. This performance was hardly a Testament to Jiang Zemin and his governors. Today China has all the technical information on mining, processing and use of these materials, and it is the merit of Guansan Xu, the father of industry of rare earth elements in China, and thousands of scientists Research Institute of Baotou.

Since then, the people’s Republic of China flood the market with rare earth elements at great prices. These elements are mined in the local mines with minimal precautions and with great environmental damage, but they can’t compete no one mine in the world, chief of which is the mountain Pass (Mountain Pass) in the United States, the former’s primary field of rare earth elements. As a result, China today is responsible for 80,4% of the total supply of rare earth elements in the world. A large part is produced in a huge mine of Bayan OBO in the province of Inner Mongolia. It is a kind of hell on earth, surrounded by an artificial reservoir, which is considered one of the most polluted in the world. It can be seen in the picture from the satellite. Just one fact: in 2017 China produced 105 thousand tons of rare earth metals, while the United States produced only 43 tons over the last 20 years.

However, this case is not limited. Thanks to this de facto monopoly on materials China patiently increased the power on the market of the digital economy, first with computers, then smartphones. So, because of the people’s Republic aspired to be not just a supplier of raw materials in this global game. The key year was 2010, two years after the release of the first iPhone: people’s Republic of China decided to cut exports of lanthanides by 72%, officially for the protection of the environment. In reality, it offers raw materials at competitive prices, the people’s Republic has ordered companies manufacturing smartphones and electronic products, to move their factories to China, turning them into a joint venture with a Chinese partner. And as soon as technological skills were obtained, the country began to produce smartphones at much lower prices compared to Apple (Apple) and Samsung (Samsung). The mission was accomplished: the company “Huawei” (Huawei) today is the second in the world in the production of smartphones, losing “Samsung”, but ahead of Apple; it also invests more than 10% of its annual revenue in research and development sector, employing about 45% of its employees. Not to mention the miners.

The future is increasingly dependent on lanthanide. One of these, neodymium, is the real touchstone of the XXI century. As said the channel “si-EN-bi-si” (CNBC) Roderick Eggert (Roderick Eggert), Deputy Director of the Institute of critical raw materials (Critical Materials Institute) at the Colorado school of mines (Colorado School of Mines): “For the most part the growth in demand for rare earth elements now associated with neodymium”. Thanks to him, combined with boron and iron, you can create a powerful magnet, while having minimum dimensions. Such a magnet is necessary for the smartphone to vibrate, wireless headphones for sound transmission, wind turbines for energy production, engines of electric cars is that they worked. We’re talking about a market that’s already two years ago was worth 11.3 billion dollars. Imagine how much it will cost, when in use will appear millions of electric vehicles. Imagine what would happen if China will start to use their abilities in the sphere of production, to produce motors of electric vehicles and wind turbines, just as he did in the smartphone market.

Supermagnete balls of neodymium

Here, however, goes back only geo-economic challenge — the story of how the West lost its influence in the world economy in the false belief that by giving the Chinese the right on the extraction of lanthanides, he just carried out the transfer of production to the geographical map, and not started the Domino effect, knocking the first part of a huge construction. But there is also a huge problem with the environment. It is — and it is these “Global monitoring of e-waste” (Global E Waste monitor) UN 2017 — about 50 million tons of e-waste, which is 1.25% of all waste in the world. Problem number one: 65% of electronic waste is not reused. Problem number two: we depend on China including in the field of recycling of technological waste, as it undertakes the processing of about 70%. Problem number three: processed annually, only 1% of lanthanides, thus, the power of China in the field of raw materials from year to year only increases. And, as a consequence, it grows in the entire value chain of this enormous market.

Yes, they are. Because the problem number four is that we are only at the beginning. In the world today, there are 7.5 billion active phone SIM cards- more than people in China on average three smartphones per person, in Italy we stopped at a rate of 1.4 per person, and take into account the elderly and children. This is a market in constant growth: annually produces more than a billion smartphones spend about 370 billion euros to buy them. One “Apple” ten years after the start of sales sold 1.2 billion iPhones. What happens when, in addition to smartphones, the world will start to dominate the car with the autopilot, every home will be robots, and smart, and a fully robotic factories will no longer be the exception? If we will not move from its current trajectory, we will control those, in whose hands is the raw materials. And we are faced with a huge problem of availability of these materials and their processing. The smaller they become, the greater is their prey, and the more the growing power of China.

“Because the resources of rare earth metals are becoming less and China shrinks in the grip of the mining industry, manufacturers and consumers of technology need to rethink the commercialization and consumption, warned Askar Sheibani (Askar Sheibani), General Director of the company “komtek” (Comtek), in his article in the newspaper “the guardian” (Guardian) in 2014. — As consumers we need to fight the habit to modernize and longer to enjoy their devices, considering first the possibility of repair, not replacement. We should also not forget that when technology reaches the end of its life cycle, they should be a reliable way to recycle and ethical requirements.”

Perhaps it is time to start thinking about it.

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