Non-Fiction Reviews

The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth

(2015) Keith Veronese, Prometheus Books, £18.99 / Can$26.50 / US$25.00, hrdbk, 270pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14972-7


For many thousands of years, ever since the Bronze Age some 5,000 years ago to the end of the 19th century, humanity has primarily relied on just three metals: copper and tin (which constitute bronze) and iron. The Iron Age itself began some 3,000 years ago. Even including ornamental elements of silver and gold, humanity typically used less than half a dozen elements. The 20th century saw household use of tungsten for hot-wire light bulb elements, but it was not until the latter half of the twentieth century that the number of typically developed nation household elements dramatically rose, and then there were the industrial use of elements such as uranium.

But none of the above are what are called 'rare earth elements'. It is these elements that are the subject of Keith Veronese's Rare. They are the elements of the Lanthanides with atomic numbers 57 (lanthanum, La) to 71 (lutetium, Lu), together with yttrium (Y, atomic number 39) and scandium (Sc, atomic number 21) The lower atomic weight elements lanthanum to samarium (Sm), with atomic numbers 57 to 62, are referred to as the light rare earth elements (LREE); while europium (Eu) to lutetium, with atomic numbers 63 to 71, are the heavy rare earth elements (HREE).

Now if you have never heard of Rare Earth Elements (REE), or have heard of them but do not appreciate their value, then Keith Veronese's Rare is the book for you. Be in no doubt, the way you currently live your life is dependent on these elements.

The rise of silicon doping for semiconductors (which includes photovoltaic solar power use) has increased the demand for these REEs in the 201st century. The REEs have many important uses, and global production has increased rapidly in recent years from about 80,000 tonnes of rare earth oxides in 2000 to 123,000 tonnes in 2009, an increase of more than 50%.

Your home personal computer, tablet, mobile phone, the internet's computational hardware, solar power cells, LCD and plasma television screens, all rely on REEs, though fortunately using low amounts at low concentrations. Nonetheless, modern life in developed nations would be very different without them.

One fortunate thing is, as Keith Veronese points out, that REEs are not these days known to be particularly 'rare'. The term ‘rare earths’ was first used in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to refer to minerals containing REE and some other metals, known deposits of which were rare – only subsequently did the name ‘rare earth elements’ come to be associated solely with the specific set of elements it denotes today.

Having said that, in 2009, China produced around 97% of global REE supply, and recent reductions in Chinese export quotas have led to greatly increased prices internationally, and concern over future security of supply. Indeed, in 2010 both the European Union and the US separately conducted their own strategic analysis in to REEs and their contributions to these nations' economies. (Search for Critical Raw Materials for the EU, European Commission, and also Critical Materials Strategy, US Department of Energy, both 2010, and also the author gives a stack of other references.) The good news, as such, is that China's domination of supply has much to do with enthusiastic mining with arguably not very stringent environmental control; there are resources elsewhere should we wish to exploit them. Then there are the recycling opportunities, again prone to less-developed nation avoiding environmental controls as well as worker health and safety. The bad news is that REEs are difficult to extract from their ore and process, which brings us back to recycling concerns.

But Keith Veronese does not restrict himself to REEs: he also tackles some 'scarce' metals including uranium and plutonium. So with Scarce you do get plenty of bangs for your buck.

Keith Veronese Rare is written in an easy-to-read style, so this book is undemanding to digest. However, it is less useful as a reference work despite the subject index at the back. No small part of this is because the author does tend to meander. Don't get me wrong, he meanders in an interesting way and so for example you can suddenly stumble upon governments abusing their power with regards monetary coinage and that this reaches back as far as the Roman Empire, or the (ahem, alleged) Russian agents poisoning Alexander Litvinenko in London. But what it does mean is that trying to retrieve some particular nugget from the book is not as easy as it might have been. And then there are the illustrations. These are confined to colour photographs on several pages in the book's centre and I do wonder whether some more pictures might have been useful, especially diagrams, and even a periodic table: most have done mid-school chemistry and so should be able to vaguely navigate about the periodic table (or are we that scientifically illiterate; not SF & science fact, big-banging concateneers for sure).

Rare's hardback is now out. I hope many libraries get it. The paperback should be out shortly and this is a title you might want to consider. One thing a can bet on, REEs and other 'scarce' metals are going to have an increasing profile in the news as we progress through this century.

Jonathan Cowie

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