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Most rare earth mines are located in China. The metals make it possible for your phone to be small, light weight, and fast.
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Better Than Gold
Your tech gadgets rely on special metals to work— and they’re getting harder and harder to find

By Cody Crane | for SuperScience

You’ve seen celebrities on TV decked out for the red carpet. The bling some of them wear is worth a small fortune. Sparkling gold, platinum, and silver are some of the most expensive metals in the world.

Maybe you don’t realize it, but you probably own some “precious metals” that are just as valuable. They’re elements found in your iPod, cell phone, and laptop!

These elements are what allow today’s gadgets to be so fast, small, and light. As electronic devices have become more popular, the demand for these metals has skyrocketed. “Some are worth more than gold,” says Alex King. He’s a materials scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory in Iowa. King and others are working to make sure there are enough of these hard-to- get materials to go around.

IMPORTANT ELEMENTS

Most state-of-the-art devices depend on a group of elements called rare earth metals. “If it plugs in, it probably contains rare earths,” says Joe Gambogi. He’s an expert in rare earth metals at the U.S. Geological Survey.

These 17 metals have special properties. For example, the rare earth element neodymium is used to make the world’s strongest magnets.

“If you stick two of them together, you won’t be able to pull them apart,” says Gambogi. These magnets often power a device’s moving parts, like a cell phone’s vibrate function. They also keep a computer’s hard drive spinning. The hard drive is where data is stored.

Lanthanum, another rare earth metal, is very good at bending light. It’s used to make tiny lenses—like the ones in smartphones and digital cameras. Other rare earths—like europium, terbium, and yttrium—glow. They create the red, green, and blue colors in TV screens and computer monitors.

BATTERY POWER

Lithium isn’t a rare earth element. But this metal is just as vital to high-tech gear. It’s used to make lightweight, long-lasting, rechargeable batteries. These batteries fuel everything from cell phones to electric cars.

Most of the world’s lithium comes from South America. It’s mined high in the Andes Mountains. There, vast salt plains stretch for miles. Beneath the salt plains are pools of brine rich in minerals, including lithium. To collect the metal, workers pump the brine into ponds on the surface. Heat from the sun causes water in the shallow ponds to evaporate. Greenish-yellow lithium crystals get left behind.

“It takes about 18 months to create just one batch of lithium,” says King. The lengthy process makes it hard for supply to keep up with demand. That’s caused lithium shortages. Scientists are working on ways to make lithium’s low-tech mining process more efficient.

HIGH DEMAND

Mining rare earths comes with its own set of problems. Despite their name, the metals are actually common in Earth’s crust. But instead of being concentrated in one spot, their deposits are spread out. That makes it difficult to remove them from the ground in large quantities.

Right now, 86 percent of the world’s rare earth metals come from China. But as China’s population grows, it’s buying more gadgets. As a result, the country is keeping more rare earths to meet its own needs. That’s reduced the amount available for the rest of the world.

To boost production of the metals, the U.S. has reopened its only rare earth mine, in California. Meanwhile, engineers are trying to develop technologies that use less of the metals. You can help too, by recycling old electronics so the elements inside them can be reused. “If you have ear buds, a cell phone, an iPod, or a computer that doesn’t work anymore, don’t toss it in the trash,” says King. “Recycle it!”

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of SuperScience magazine. To find out more about SuperScience's great resources, click here.