In an era where every country in the world—apart from the US, Syria, and Nicaragua—is bound by commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, it should be little surprise that the demand for coal is falling fast. Despite these global trends, US coal is looking for ways to revive its dying industry.
One idea is to change its product: instead of mining coal to burn as a source of fuel, it could mine coal for crucial metals found in it.Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel. Not only does it produce the most amount of carbon dioxide pollution for each unit of energy, it contains non-hydrocarbon chemicals that, when burned, release dangerous toxins into the air. These include a strategically important group called “rare-earth metals.”
These metals, such as neodymium and scandium, are used in everything from smartphones to wind turbines. They’re also used in guided missiles and other defense applications. That is what makes them a strategically important resource, and for the last decade or more, China is responsible for the production of over 90% of global rare-earth metals.
If China were to change its mind about supplying to the US, it would make the US more vulnerable to outside threats. Rare earths is a misnomer, because they are neither “rare” nor “earths.” They are rare in their pure forms, but plentiful as compounds.
They are called “earth metals” because that used to be the term for metals that can dissolve in acid. China’s monopoly on mining rare earths is purely due to the country’s ability to produce them at a cost that’s hard to beat (which is most likely because it doesn’t pay for avoiding the environmental impacts from the mining.)
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