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  • Renewable technologies like solar panels, electric cars, and wind farms may move us toward a more sustainable future.

  • But the problems caused by just one of their key ingredients could jeopardize it all.

  • Luckily, nature has provided us some pretty cool solutions that, if we can take advantage of them, just might save the day.

  • I'm talking about rare earth elements, or REEs, a group of 17 elements on the periodic table.

  • And not only do green technologies depend on them, but they're key parts of most electronics:

  • smart phones, computer hard drives, digital cameras, and more, plus things like medical imaging machines and lasers, aerospace components.

  • Many of these elements are so useful because they're easy to magnetise and they hold on to that magnetic-ness even in their solid form.

  • Elements like neodymium, terbium, indium, and others are essential to solar panels and wind turbines.

  • And a recent study showed that in order to keep up with demand for these technologies, we'll need to produce 12 times as much of these REEs used in those technologies by 2050.

  • And that's a problem, because when we say 'rare', we're not really talking about how common they are.

  • They're actually relatively abundant in the Earth's crust, but it's getting them out that's the trouble.

  • See, mining affects ecosystems by damaging vegetation and causing soil erosion.

  • And because REE deposits often form alongside chunks of radioactive material, their extraction can produce wastewater with high levels of radioactive elements, acids, and heavy metals.

  • That's bad not only for the environment, but also the health of the humans who live in it.

  • And that's all before you process the stuff in the ground into something you can put into a battery or a solar panel.

  • That's also an energy-intensive process that's dangerous to environmental and human health.

  • The countries where these deposits are found play a role in this problem too, adding political dynamics to the picture.

  • Control over mining operations has caused conflict in some mining countries, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

  • And China currently holds a pretty firm monopoly on REEs, providing between 93 and 96% of the world's supply.

  • That means they hold all the cards, so if they wanted to, they could shut off the pipeline, and leave the rest of the world stranded.

  • So, we definitely need creative solutions to make sure our future stays as green and high tech as possible, without wreaking havoc on the environment, global politics, or people's lives in the process.

  • Reimagining the extraction process itself is key, and that doesn't only include better environmental regulation.

  • A team at Rutgers University has called in bacteria for help.

  • The bacteria naturally produce an acid that can be used to coax rare earths from their hiding places in the ground.

  • And this is less environmentally destructive than the harsh and polluting chemicals the industry uses today.

  • On the production side of things, researchers are asking how can we waste less REEs as we turn them from rock into an end product?

  • Others are asking how we can reduce the amount of rare earths used in key technologies in the first place, by changing the design of the technology, or experimenting with alternative materials to power those devices.

  • And in addition to reducing REEs in the first place, we're also finding creative ways to reuse and recycle them.

  • The turnover for our personal devices is so high, it doesn't really make sense to throw away the precious materials inside, just because you want to upgrade to the latest smartphone.

  • One project trapped live E. coli inside tiny hydrogel beads.

  • The E. coli were bioengineered to absorb rare earths from electronic waste, which could then be extracted by the researchers, and the beads themselves are reusable.

  • Another team extracted and refined a natural protein produced, again, by bacteria.

  • That protein extracts rare earth elements from electronic waste, and the researchers developed a process for scooping that protein back up and getting it to let go of the waste that it 'ate'.

  • I actually got to make a whole video about that particular project, which we've linked down in the comments if you want to know more.

  • Innovative solutions to this problem are more necessary than they've ever been.

  • Not only is the world's demand for devices that use rare earths always growing, but we also need them to power the technologies that promise to make our future more sustainable.

  • So, here's hoping we can make creating those technologies more sustainable too, and it looks like bacteria are certainly gonna be able to help us out.

  • If you want to learn more about more creative ways scientists are combining microbes and batteries, you can check out this video here.

  • And let us know if you have any questions about the topics we covered in this video down in the comments below.

  • Make sure you subscribe to Seeker for all of your future technology news, and as always, thanks so much for watching.

  • I'll see you next time.

Renewable technologies like solar panels, electric cars, and wind farms may move us toward a more sustainable future.

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