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Rare earths and our insatiable appetite for digital memory

This week a dozen protesters travelled from Malaysia to Australia to protest outside the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of Lynas Corporation, an Australian rare earth mining company, for the third year running…

Protestors against Lynas mine processing in Malaysia Peter Boyle

This week a dozen protesters travelled from Malaysia to Australia to protest outside the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of Lynas Corporation, an Australian rare earth mining company, for the third year running.

Most Australians probably don’t realise that Australia has a rare earth mine or that this is one of a very small handful of rare earth mines in the world. Lynas Corporation ship the rare earths they extract in Australia to a town called Kuantan on the east coast of Malaysia to be processed.

Rare earths are essential to the production of modern media because they are critical to our iPods, smart phones, digital cameras, laptops, PCs and to the illusive “cloud” where we store our captured moments, ideas and memories.

As other articles on The Conversation have highlighted, rare earths are in fact in plentiful supply in Australia. According to CSIRO, Australia has approximately 6% of the world’s rare earths.

One of the problems with rare earth mining is that while the 17 minerals known as rare earths are generally considered harmless by themselves, they are frequently found mixed with potentially dangerous radioactive ores such as thorium. Separating and refining the rare earths can be complex and messy and requires a great deal of water use. This process results in toxic waste.

Once rare earth minerals have been extracted from the earth, separated and processed, they are used individually for a range of different purposes. Most of us come into contact with rare earth products every day through our use of communication technologies.

They are used to make fibre optic cables, digital cameras, computer hard disc drives, digital screens, microphones and handheld wireless devices. In particular, rare earths have helped make our media become more mobile by being key to the development of smaller size communication technologies like laptops and mobile phones.

Rare earths are used for devices such as mobile phones and laptops Flickr/Yutaka Tsutano

When Lynas got their rare earth mine up and running in Western Australia, they needed a place to process the rare earths. It seems they never considered Australia as an option because it would be too expensive, costing four times as much to build and run. Eventually they struck a deal with the Malaysian government who offered them a deal that included no tax payments for 14-years.

Ever since locals heard about this deal – protesters say it was half built by the time they found out about it − they have been trying to stop it. The protesters here in Australia this week say they are here with the support of more than a million Malaysians who have signed their petition to have Lynas kicked out of their home town.

The question we need to ask ourselves in Australia is: are we willing to allow rare earths to be processed here and if not, should we be mining them? If we are willing to have a rare earth processing plant here, what conditions would we want to impose? It’s an important question because at the time of writing 11 more rare earth mining projects are at the scoping study, proposal or early development stage in Australia.

Connecting rare earth mining to the digital media devices we so easily embrace can be seen as a small, but growing trend in media studies.

We all pay so little attention to the resources used by “the cloud”. The cloud metaphor filters our perceptions of storage and memory because it is cleverly designed to be “natural” and elevated far away from the hardware that it really constitutes. These kinds of conceptual tricks artfully obscure and make invisible the environmental damage caused by our media production, consumption and waste.

We may need rare earths to satisfy our persistent desire for the latest communication technologies and to digitally capture and save everything we do, see and think. However, there are things we can to do minimise and more equitably distribute the damage and risk.

This includes regulating mining and manufacturing companies to adhere to stricter environmental laws and making them treat their workers better. It is vital we fight against the planned obsolescence and disposable mentality we have all come to expect from our communication technologies. We need to be consuming less technology and throwing less away, or in the case of data storage, perhaps throwing away more.

Our back-ups and storage of data we really don’t want have implications for the use of energy and resources. This includes the massive amount of data we are storing on social network sites such as Facebook and via our webmail accounts. As server farms grow every year around the world we are told we are told by companies like Google that we should feel happy to have our data travelling though and living in these “high-tech data centers”. Rather, we should start asking questions about what we save, where and why.

At the very least, we might start by listening to the Malaysian protesters, hearing their concerns and complaints and asking ourselves if we’d be responding in the same way if we lived in Kuantan.

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29 Comments sorted by

  1. Craig Read

    logged in via Twitter

    "The question we need to ask ourselves in Australia is: are we willing to allow rare earths to be processed here and if not, should we be mining them?"

    The same could be said for Uranium, Coal or anything else we dig up that has a negative environmental impact. All of them have waste products that are hazardous and toxic. If we're going to continue basing our prosperity on prospecting, we should really try to develop some expertise in sustainable and safe waste management. The solutions to those problems could become exports, instead of the problems themselves.

    And if thorium is one of the problems associated with extracting rare earths, maybe we should start looking at making it a solution to some other big problems? The potential opportunity of thorium is massive, if we're prepared to seize it. It's not like we don't have lots of the stuff lying around.

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  2. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    If they want the processing that's happening in Malaysia (and approved by the Malaysian government) to end, perhaps they'd be better off protesting to the Malaysian government IN MALAYSIA?

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    1. Tanya Notley

      Lecturer in Internet Studies & Convergent Media at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to John Crest

      You'll find that Malaysians have fought their govt long and hard. 20,000 of them marched in protest last year. 1.2 million have signed a petition in the last month. As I mentioned, local citizens did not find out about the plant until it was half built. This is not a good way for a corporation to start a relationship with a country. This would never be accepted in Australia. I think to suggest you can only and should only protest in one way (to your government) within your own borders is rather naive…

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    2. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Tanya Notley

      Australians and foreigners can protest in Australia about anything they like including issues that affect those foreigners in their own countries. No doubt raising public awareness of the issue facing Lynas in Australia will cause them to address the problem more actively.

      Having said that, it is still primarily the responsibility of the Malaysian nation and its government to have adequate health and safety laws in place and enforce them effectively.

      Belittling their responsibility is a further example of our western moral superiority syndrome at work.

      Gerard Dean

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    3. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Tanya Notley

      "As I mentioned, local citizens did not find out about the plant until it was half built. This is not a good way for a corporation to start a relationship with a country."

      The corporation doesn't HAVE a direct relationship with the citizens of a country. The relationship is intermediated by the government of saud country: I assume here of course, that you didn't mean that the Malaysian government only found out about the plant until it was half built.

      See Gerard Dean's comments for the final word.

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  3. John Newlands

    tree changer

    Rare earths and thorium could be the odd couple for clean energy. I note wind turbines that do not use rare earth magnets but induction coils need a 'black start' from the grid. I also note a TV ad that shows a mains powered rare earth motor vacuum cleaner light enough to hold above the user's head.

    The claimed advantage of several types of thorium reactors is no chance of meltdown but some technical problems are yet to be solved. Perhaps the Chinese will be the first to design a mass production thorium reactor. In India the approach is to mutate thorium to uranium then use it in conventional reactors.

    Apart from Mt Weld WA we have other large deposits of REs and thorium at Nolans Bore NT, in the tailings at Olympic Dam SA and in monazite separated from beach sand eg at Geraldton WA. An extraction plant planned for Whyalla SA was cancelled. I think Australia should have at least one domestic extraction plant so we are ready when the technology calls.

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  4. Murray Wood

    Environmental management

    In the Dubbo LGA in NSW there is a miner working through the environmental approvals to mine and process rare earths. So at least one Australian miner is considering onshore processing.

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    1. Tanya Notley

      Lecturer in Internet Studies & Convergent Media at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Murray Wood

      yes that's right Murray. We are 'lucky' that the required environmental assessment process in Australia requires community consultation and a period for public comment (*before* any developments are approved or any construction begins). This did not happen in Malaysia and is one of the core complaints of the protesters. In the link in our story above it also says Alkane (who have have the proposed Dubbo site) "signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Japan’s Shin-Etsu Chemical Co Ltd to produce…

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  5. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    If Malaysia wants the economic value that industry - whatever kind of industry - generates, then they can deal with the hazardous wastes that industry generates. If not, that's fine, some other country will happily take its place and take the economic value.

    If you want neodymium magnets for wind turbines and electric vehicles, and europium or cerium for white LED phosphors, and petroleum cracking catalysts and what not, then you deal with the real-world process of producing those materials. That's…

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    1. Ken McLeod

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Luke Weston

      Thanks Luke, for your informative and rational piece.

      What Tanya omitted, and what seems to be missing from the entire Lynas debate, is that the LAMP refinery in Malaysia has been inspected and cleared by the IAEA and all regulatory authorities.

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    2. Tanya Notley

      Lecturer in Internet Studies & Convergent Media at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Luke Weston

      Luke: As the article mentioned more than a million Malaysians signed the petition saying they wanted Lynas out. 20,000 people joined a march/protest rally from Kuantun to Malaysia last year (Google 'Green March Lynas'). Having travelled to Kuantan I think your assertion that "the anti-Lynas activism movement is largely led by Australian anti-nuclear activist groups such as Friends of the Earth and Beyond Nuclear" is rather ill in-formed. You'll find plenty of coverage in the Malaysian independent…

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    3. Tim Ainsworth

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Tanya Notley

      Tanya,
      Have you read the IAEA review of the LAMP: http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/pdf/lynas-report2011.pdf
      Have you followed AELB & Lynas compliance with the recommendations? Most particularly the public environmental monitoring and the appointment of an independent supervisor?
      Have you followed recent developments where all three waste streams have been successfully converted to co-product and are currently waiting export permits for sale outside Malaysia?
      Have you read the official announcement…

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    4. Tanya Notley

      Lecturer in Internet Studies & Convergent Media at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Tim Ainsworth

      Dear Tim.

      I see from your online comments elsewhere that you are (or you were until recently) a shareholder of Lynas - it would appear the link to this article might now be passed around to upset shareholders. I really understand why shareholders are very upset and distressed about the massive fall in Lynas stock prices. I have been told that at least some of the minor investors are retirees who have lost most of their savings. I would like to read more about their perspectives. My article…

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    5. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to Tanya Notley

      @ Luke Weston: “It also has an unusually low concentration of uranium and thorium for a rare earth deposit - about 400 ppm thorium, and negligible uranium.”

      Tanya, I suspect Luke is confusing Lynas’ Duncan Deposit with the Mount Weld project which is exporting rare earth concentrates to Malaysia. To my knowledge, the Duncan Deposit has not yet been developed.

      On 18 January 2012, Lynas reported Measured, Indicated and Inferred REO resources for the Central Lanthanide deposit at a cut-off…

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    6. Tanya Notley

      Lecturer in Internet Studies & Convergent Media at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      thanks Shirley for your detailed response. It's difficult to find the Preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment online or the Radiological Impact Assessment but I'd be happy to email a copy to anyone who'd like these. Both were created before operations began and thus were estimates (and were written before new proposals for waste have been made) but both state there will be three forms of residual waste. Two of these will have less than one 1.0 Bq/g limit but one (the water leach purification residue) will have 0.23 Bq/g uranium-238 and 5.90 Bq/g for thorium-232 ("resulting in 62.39 Bq/g for the two decay chains") and 32,000 tonnes of this waste per year are expected to be produced.

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  6. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    No mining for rare earths - No rare earths; No rare earth's - no silicon chips; no silicon chips - no computers; no computers - no internet; no internet - no The Conversation; No The Conversation - no platform to raise issues with rare earth mining;

    I love it when the dreamers who call for no mining and to keep the oil in the soil are forced to confront the reality that our modern lifestyle is utterly dependent on mining and use of the earth's minerals.

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    1. Henry Verberne

      Former IT Professional

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Gerard,

      it seems to me you either did not read the article or chose to ignore what the author said: "However, there are things we can to do minimise and more equitably distribute the damage and risk.

      This includes regulating mining and manufacturing companies to adhere to stricter environmental laws and making them treat their workers better. It is vital we fight against the planned obsolescence and disposable mentality we have all come to expect from our communication technologies. We need to be consuming less technology and throwing less away, or in the case of data storage, perhaps throwing away more".

      No mention of stopping mining or any "dreamers". The author made the case for what to me seem perfectly responsible environmental safeguards and for a push back of the throw away mentality. These rare earths are not called that for nothing as I'm sure you know.

      If you believe mining ought to be open slather, please say so.

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    2. James Hammond

      Ecologist

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      'All or nothing' seems to be all Mr Dean is capable of saying.

      There is nothing wrong with admitting that the great achievements of humankind have subsequent issues. There is nothing wrong with discussing how we can do things better and nothing wrong with asking 'how much is too much'??

      The phrase 'everything in moderation' seems applicable. Dont get rid of mining and making computers and smartphones and data centres, but dont think that we can carry out these activities ad infinitum.

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    3. Andy Saunders

      Consultant

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      Actually, Henry, they are not particularly rare. And I can assure you that large users of rare earths are actively looking to conserve and recycle their REE usage.

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  7. Brian Keyte

    Potter

    Thanks for that Tanya. Can you refer us to any evidence of actual damage being done?
    On reading what I can find on this question from the links above and other research I cannot find anything on what Lynas is actually doing wrong. Am I missing something? Are they dumping the by products, including thorium, into the environment or exposing workers/locals to hazardous materials? From what I can see so far, the movement has all the scientific backing of the anti wind farm movement mixed with that part of the anti nuclear movement which says "If it can be harmful, it therefore is".
    That may not be the reality but, so far, that's what it looks like.

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    1. Tanya Notley

      Lecturer in Internet Studies & Convergent Media at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Brian Keyte

      Hi Brian. Thanks for your question. I've made quite a few comments about the anti-Lynas movement above in other responses to comments. Last year I met the head of one group (Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas) and quite a few of its members when I visited Malaysia. All core members of this group come from Kuantan where the Lynas plant has been built. The head of the campaign is a retired Maths teacher; I also met local members who are lawyers, medical doctors, engineers, business folks. This group have not…

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  8. Garry Baker

    researcher

    Interesting read, however it neglects to inform readers on what drove Lynas to Malaysia, and just how important rare earths are to 21st century civilisation.

    Fact is, China collared 95% of the worlds output of rare earths, then they held the world to ransom on supply.

    With the above in mind, perhaps a less parochial story might serve readers better. Indeed, start with Jack Lifton, and his views on what might become of Lynas. As for Australia, forget it, we don't mill HF6, a very high value add product - and we won't be doing rare earths

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    1. Tanya Notley

      Lecturer in Internet Studies & Convergent Media at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Garry Baker

      There is only so much you can say in 800 words but you'll find plenty of info in the links provided in the article (including links to the three other articles written in this publication). One part that was edited out due to constrains detailed the very interesting developments regarding China's role as a producer. I found this report very useful in that regard is:
      Hurst, C. (2010). China’s Rare Earth Elements Industry: What Can the West Learn? Washington: Institute for the Analysis of Global Security…

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  9. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. In reply to Garry Baker

      Comment removed by moderator.

    2. Andy Saunders

      Consultant

      In reply to Tanya Notley

      Tanya, maybe you are being a bit over-sensitive? I can't see an insult in Garry's remarks.

      Rare earths are a fascinating topic. I've done some background on them, and Garry has some very valid points (I can't specifically concur with the GS conspiracy theory, but I've heard it before).

      There has been a fairly obvious attempt by the Chinese to corner the REE market, and manipulate it in many ways (for instance, the export quotas, and the attempt to force downstream processing onto Chinese territory…

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  10. Coolderry Clarence

    logged in via Facebook

    After doing my own research into the technical specifications of the LAMP, I came to the conclusion that there was no risk to the local population - many of whom derive a range of benefits from economic investment in their area. If I thought otherwise I would not have invested in this company, and would sell my shares if anyone led any believable evidence about local environmental harm. Tin mines and Palm Oil plantations in Malaysia are examples of activities that cause real rather than fictional…

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  11. James Hammond

    Ecologist

    "The question we need to ask ourselves in Australia is: are we willing to allow rare earths to be processed here and if not, should we be mining them?"

    Why not indeed. Unfortunately, the broader issue is that even if we did approve rare earth refining in Australia, the investment is likely to still go offshore to developing nations. The article stated that the processing was to be carried out in Malaysia, as it would cost 'four times as much' to do so in Australia. This is no doubt due to the fact that the corporation would be liable to some reasonable expectations regarding wages, environmental protection and waste disposal. Globalisation is a race to the bottom in terms of standards such as this, in pursuit of the highest profit.

    If only the true cost of the externalities borne by the people and environment of Malaysia could be reflected in the price tag of that shiny new iPhone (with a whole 2 Gb more storage and 0.12 mm slimmer than the last one!!)

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