Why You Should Worry About Rare-Earth Availability

Why You Should Worry About Rare-Earth Availability

In fact, you shouldn't. Yes, rare earths are important--arguably irreplaceable--it might already be too late to arrange for many of the supplies computing will need over the next decade, and IT is rife with supply vulnerabilities specifically to rare earths. You almost certainly have bigger problems to worry about, though.

Small amounts, big effects

The speed-dating version of rare earths recognizes that the recipes for essentially all of the physical technologies on which we depend in 2016 involve tiny pinches of seventeen specific elements. "Element" here is a chemical term; well-known examples include silicon, carbon, gold, and so on. The rare earths aren't so well known--but high-power batteries, dense memories, portable headphones, reliable microelectronics, electric generators, and much more, all require rare-earth alloys of lanthanum, erbium, and their relatives.

Over 90% of the planet's rare-earth mining is Chinese.

Do you see the problem? By 2010, the US Department of Energy strategized about the "Rare Earths Crisis". The industry even drilled on supply-chain disruption the next year, when flooding in Thailand in 2011's monsoon season knocked out a quarter of global hard-disk drive production and doubled prices. While manufacturers including Western Digital repaired damage at breathtaking rates, it took nearly two years for markets to recover.

Rare earths will return to the headlines some day, and it won't be pretty.

It probably won't be the worst event of your IT career, though. For complex chemical and economic reasons, raw materials prices might soar to ten times previous levels--but likely not a hundred times.

If you have the opportunity to strategize about large-scale disasters, several will probably afford bigger pay-offs:

My conclusion: as important as rare earths are, you're safe leaving them to the experts for now. It's very, very timely, however, to configure as much of your work as possible for remote control.

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