Rare | Keith Veronese

Summary of: Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth
By: Keith Veronese

Introduction

In the book ‘Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth’, Keith Veronese delves into the world of rare earth metals, exploring the complex, high-stakes race to extract these valuable resources. Through fascinating stories and facts from their initial discovery to their present-day uses, Veronese examines the political, economic, and environmental implications of obtaining and utilizing these metals. Readers of this summary can expect to learn about the surprising abundance of rare earth metals, their unique properties and applications, the dangers of their extraction, and the critical role they play in the modern economy, especially in the technology and defense sectors.

Rare Earth Metals – A Matter of Quantity

Rare earth metals are not as “rare” as their name suggests. Naming comes from their scarcity when initially discovered, but they are found in small quantities all over the earth’s crust. They are not hard to find, but it is problematic and expensive to extract them. Rare earth metals are a group of seventeen chemical elements, including cerium, praseodymium, scandium, and yttrium. To obtain useful amounts of these elements, tons of rocks need to be crushed and separated chemically, resulting in a complicated and ultimately wasteful process. This process destroys a part of the elements extracted, making them even rarer.

The Discovery of Rare Earth Metals

In the late 18th century, a Swedish army officer discovered a strange black rock in a quarry near Ytterby, Sweden. A chemist named Johan Gadolin found that the rock contained yttria, which was composed of several different elements including a new element named yttrium. Due to the presence of oxygen atoms, separating yttrium from these atoms proved challenging. It wasn’t until the 20th century that scientists developed a method of extracting rare earth metals from rocks. Pure yttrium was eventually isolated and used in the creation of screens for televisions, computers, and radar where it helps create the color red.

Rare Earth Metals and Nuclear Power Plants

Rare earth metals are vital components in ensuring the safety and regulation of nuclear power plants. Unlike radioactive elements, rare earth metals help absorb neutrons to keep the reaction gradual and manageable. As fuel rods partially disintegrate, the production of rare earth metals such as rhodium, ruthenium and palladium occurs. However, what to do with nuclear waste is controversial. Storing waste in lead facilities or recycling are two possible methods, with recycling being potentially hazardous due to the security hazard of plutonium. Despite the pitfalls, rare earth metals are crucial in nuclear power plants.

The Deadly Poison Hiding in Plain Sight

The book explores the use of thallium, a toxic metal, as a murder weapon and its deadly effects on the human body. Agatha Christie’s novel The Pale Horse is based on thallium poisoning, which, unfortunately, is not just a work of fiction. Thallium became so popular as a poison that it was nicknamed “inheritance powder” due to the number of heirs who benefited from an early and suspicious death of a relative. As a white crystallized salt, thallium sulfate dissolves in water and bonds with water molecules, and just one gram of it can kill an adult. The poison’s discreet nature makes it a preferred choice for murder, as symptoms can be mistaken for many other deadly illnesses. In 2011, a man’s supposed suicide turned out to be a case of thallium poisoning by his ex-wife, a pharmaceutical chemist.

China’s Rare Earth Metals

China possesses a vast majority of the world’s rare earth metals, crucial elements needed for manufacturing various products. The Bayan Obo Mining District in Inner Mongolia is home to most of these resources. This region dates back over 400 million years and is a result of a tectonic shift that brought up precious metals from the earth’s core. China tried to restrict the exportation of rare earth metals between 2012 and 2015, making access to these resources difficult for the rest of the world. However, their attempts were overruled by the World Trade Organization in 2015.

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