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Moving the heaven to get some rare earth

— Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Exploration: The plan is to send rovers to the moon to look for minerals and ores which contain rare earth elements.

About a month ago came an intriguing piece of news. One Mr. Naveen Jain, who has started a company called Moon Express Inc. in California, has plans of sending robotic rovers to the moon.

These rovers will look for minerals and ores which contain rare earth elements such as Yttrium, Dysprosium, Nyobium and others, and upon finding, will send back images to the control station on earth. The team will then plan on sending space crafts to go and retrieve the rare earth minerals from the moon and bring them here.

An out-of-the-box (more an out-of-the-earth) idea! After all, recall that the moon was once part of the earth and was ejected from us (either by simple break-off from where the Pacific Ocean now is or due to collision by an external body) in the early history of the solar system. Thus, it is not unlikely that some of the ores and minerals we have here are also present on the moon; since the technology is available, why not explore there?

Why this focus on the rare earths? What are they? As many students of chemistry know, this is a group of 17 elements of the Periodic Table, specifically the fifteen of the “Lanthanide group” plus Scandium and Yttrium. Indeed, as they were discovered, they posed an embarrassment to the orderliness of the Periodic Table, much as the inert gases (also called rare gases) did. But the latter could simply be added on as an extra column (the zero group) where they fitted decorously.

But the lanthanides had to be grouped into one position with an asterisk and footnote. All the 15 elements from Lanthanum (atomic number 57) to Lutetium (atomic number 71) are placed in one spot on the table, between Barium (56) and Hafnium (72).

And they all occur together. In a given ore, for example Ytterbite which takes as name from the Swedish village Ytterby, the oxides of Yttrium and Cerium were first discovered. Further analysis revealed two more oxides, those of Lanthanum and Didymium (which itself is a twin mixture of Praseodymium and Neodymium). These Swedish ores yielded element after element, much like the Russian Matryoshka doll contains doll within a doll within a doll. The village Ytterby became famous since as many as seven elements (Yb, Er, Tb, Y, Pr and Nd) are named after it. What use are they? Because of their remarkable electronic structures, these elements and their compounds are useful in making specialty glasses, battery electrodes, superconducting materials, electromagnets, microwave resonators, and of course laser sources.

One of the most common lasers used in YAG (yttrium-aluminium-garnet), and its cousin is Nd-YAG which contains the element Neodymium also.

Other lanthanides are used in magnets, steel, MRI contrast agents and phosphors. They are ubiquitous in today's gadgets: disc-drives, miniature chargeable batteries, display, TV monitors, rangefinders, night vision goggles, and so on.

Soon it became clear that these elements and oxides are not as rare as was thought. In fact they occur just as abundantly as copper, and mostly in Brazil, China, South Africa, Malaysia US and of course India. We have rare earth ores found in Kerala and the Department of Atomic Energy has a company called Indian Rare Earths.

It is estimated that the world uses as much as 134,000 tons of rare earth metals a year, but mining only 124,000. Given this gargantuan appetite, those countries with supply are in a winning position, making rare earth stocks the new oil. And China, which holds 37 per cent of the world's supply, has decided to decrease its exports and regulate its mining efforts as well. Foreseeing the looming situation, a note has been circulated to the US policymakers by the Congressional Research Service highlighting the effect this would have on national security. Rare earth metals are used in missile guidance systems, jet fighter engines, underwater mine detectors and so forth.

Aware of the importance, India too appears to have geared up its policy. A new national multi-pronged strategy has been suggested, not only to ramp up domestic production, but also to enter into joint ventures with international players. Granted that we only offer 2% today of the world's needs, business opportunity on one hand and national needs on the other, demand such a move.

No wonder then that Naveen Jain is thinking of going to the moon. Now, if he can do it, should we not too? Moon is just as free and uninhabited as the Antarctic (just a bit farther away), and several countries have pitched their tents and hurled their flags in the latter.

And it is not the same as the colonization of The Gold Coast (Ghana) by the Portuguese and British, subjugating the native residents, or of D R Congo by the Belgians for diamond. So, are there rules for such exploitation and owning virgin territories, or is it free for all – first come first own? Are there any international laws or accepted practices? I wonder.

D. BALASUBRAMANIAN

dbala@lvpei.org

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