Saturday, June 9, 2012

Conflict Over Rare Earth Metals is Expected to Feature in a New Video Game

Copyright (c) 2012 Alison Withers

Until relatively recently very few people would have heard of Rare Earth Elements, also known as Rare Earth Metals, but would unknowingly have depended on them in using many everyday products of modern life.

However, in March 2012 these elements hit the headlines after China announced its intention to limit exports and was then reported to the World Trade Organisation by the USA, Europe and Japan.

While these elements are not rare in themselves, they all have to be extracted from other minerals, usually in fairly small quantities, and China's ability to control supplies comes from its advanced ability to produce them.

This has focused global attention on REMs both in terms of their value as an investment and in finding alternative sources as well as on recycling them from already manufactured products.

REMs are essential to the production of clean energy technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines and the batteries in the hybrid cars, leading Japan to announce a new enterprise in extracting and recycling the essential element, lanthanum, from these batteries for re-use.

Equally they are essential ingredients in many consumer products such as LED televisions and mobile phones and for a variety of medical uses.

Among the four most widely used REMs are Lanthanum, Europium, Erbium and Neodymium.

Lanthanum, as already mentioned is a constituent in the batteries used in hybrid vehicles.

Europium was originally used in colour televisions in the 1970s but is now more widely to be found in white LED-based lights, where white light is produced by mixing various coloured LEDs. Europium red is an ingredient in a high-quality, attractive shade of white.

Erbium oxide when added to glass produces a stable pink colour and is therefore used in producing sunglasses, cubic zirconium jewellery and vases. More importantly when added to optical fibres erbium helps to amplify the light pulses that the fibres carry and therefore help to improve communication and data flow.

The REM also amplifies light in lasers that are then used in dental surgery and dermatology because erbium amplified lasers build up less heat.

The final element in the quartet of widely used REMs is Neodymium, which first made its appearance in the manufacture of portable music players using cassette tapes. It is now an ingredient in all kinds of magnets, enabling the miniaturisation of all types of gadgets from hard drives to headphones to anything that incorporates a small electric motor that needs to spin and therefore contains a magnet.

Clearly whether we are aware of them or not REMs play a part in many of the aspects of 21st century life that we take for granted, but their fame is about to get a boost.

It has been reported that the storyline of video game maker Activision's newest version of "Call of Duty," due for release in Autumn 2012, will feature a fictional future in which China's control over rare earth metals sparks a war in Africa

Most people may not have heard of Rare Earth Metals that is likely to change with the release of a new video game in the autumn expected to feature a storyline of conflict over REMs in Africa. By Ali Withers.

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