By Richard Stuebi
Remember the white soul group on the Motown label, Rare Earth? If you do, sorry: this posting isn't about them....
Nope, it's about the fact that rare earth metals represent a unique problem -- and opportunity -- in the cleantech realm.
As PBS reported on "Newshour" a few months ago (transcript here), rare earth materials are important commodities essential to the production of many environmental technologies -- from batteries to wind turbines to solar panels.
Unfortunately, many of these materials are highly toxic and thus pose significant environmental hazards if mis-managed.
Regrettably, since most of the world's endowment of these rare earth materials is found in China, the extraction of these materials from the ground is often done with little concern for environmental protection.
In addition, to the extent the world becomes reliant on technologies that depend upon rare earth materials, substantial geopolitical issues emerge as these elements become strategic inputs for economic activity. (In other words, replace "Saudi Arabia" with "China", and "oil" with "rare earth metals", and you get the idea.)
So, cleantech innovators would do well to find economical, widely-available, and environmentally-friendly substitutes for rare earth metals -- or to re-engineer cleantech widgets so that they don't require these scarce and nasty materials. There's a lot of money to be made, and a lot of headaches to be saved, if we don't become stuck over the rare earth barrel.