Daily Archives: May 9th, 2012

Rare Earths – And Why the iPad is Made in China

Have you wondered what the iPad is made out of?  Beneath the sleek streamlined device, apart from the aluminium and glass, there are several reasons why the iPad has to be made in China. These include:

  • cheap labor – minimum wage in China is about a tenth that of the US
  • lax environmental regulations – when you consider that producing a  1.44-pound iPad results in over 285 times its own weight in greenhouse gas emissions, its no wonder China lies 116th of 132 countries in Yale’s Environmental Performance Index rankings.
  • the need for significant amounts of rare earth elements.

Oxides of rare earth elements. Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium.

So what are rare earths? The term is a misnomer as they are not rare and they are not a kind of dirt. Rare because they are found widely dispersed on this planet but not in sufficient amounts at any one place. They comprise of 17 minerals found in the periodic table of elements that are important in the manufacture of a wide range of high-technology products, including flat-screens, smartphones and the iPad.

The crunch is that China virtually produces commercially almost all the  rare earth supply on this planet. Although Apple have not officially confirmed what kind of rare earths are used, many believe, for instance, that here may be lanthanum in the iPad’s lithium-ion polymer battery, as well as “a range of rare earths to produce the different colours” in the display. The magnets along the side of the iPad and in its cover are possibly a neodymium alloy.

The reason many countries, including the US and Australia, have not embarked on rare earth refining is largely environmental and anti-green, where toxic by-products are released into the environment, including hazardous radioactive substances which can pose a danger to health for surrounding residents, if inadequate safety measures are not in place.

A case in point is the Lynas refinery plant, the world’s largest, in Kuantan, Malaysia. Here, rare earth is imported by ship from Fremantle, Australia for refining and then re-exported to Australia. Permanent disposal of the roughly 20,000 tons a year of low-level radioactive waste that will be produced has been a big issue although the International Atomic Energy Commission has reportedly approved the safety of the plant. The progress toward opening the plant has been hampered by street demonstrations over radiation concerns, regulatory challenges and the withdrawal of a major equipment supplier worried about the safety of the refinery.

Environmental and health safety concerns have sparked street demos at the Lynas plant in Kuantan, Malaysia

Meanwhile, the price of rare earths has multiplied 30x in 2011, although it has since softened, largely because of the impending Lynas plant, which can meet 20% of the world’s needs.

Additional Reading

Rare Earths – the New York Times

Rare Earth Plant in Malaysia Ready To Go – Yahoo.

 

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