The Crisis in the Global Supply of Rare Earth Elements as a Scientific and Educational Opportunity
Wind turbine generators, hybrid and electric vehicles as well as fiber optics, cell phones and flat-panel displays all require high-purity rare earth metals in their manufacture. China currently produces about 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth metals. In 2010 the Chinese government announced it would reduce exports of these vital materials by 72 percent, citing the environmental damage caused by mining and processing operations.The elements must be separated from their composite mineral sources, a process that requires the use of environmentally taxing acids and solvents. Schelter’s goal is to develop efficient, environmentally friendly separations processes for certain high-value rare earth metals based on their unique physical and chemical properties. Schelter, a tireless communicator for science, sees this research project as an educational opportunity. Through his continuing lectures on campus and off, he is working to interest students and the general public in the urgent problems associated with rare earth metals mining and processing. He reaches out to high school and college chemistry students to highlight the dichotomy between renewable energy devices and the environmental damage done by mining and processing the rare earth metals used in those devices.