Science @ BIO – What’s in your smart phones and other modern gadgets?

Today’s cutting-edge technologies from smart phones to hybrid vehicles are becoming a way of life as society relies more and more on these gadgets and looks to reduce its carbon footprint. Have you ever wondered where our modern technology comes from?

Research scientist Dr. Mike Parsons with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) is looking at this question closely. Aside from the more familiar elements like nickel and copper, Parsons says new technologies also require many rare earth elements. There are 17 different rare earth elements and they have names many have never heard of like cerium or thulium. The touch screen interface we’ve all come to rely on, the advanced medical imaging equipment used to diagnose diseases faster and more accurately, the latest advancements in military technologies – are just a few of these technological applications that use rare earth elements to make them work.

Mining rare earths and separating them from one another is a complicated task. As many of these elements are often found together, the challenge is to find a way to separate them and extract them from the earth in a cost-effective way that mitigates environmental impacts. As part of NRCan’s Environmental Geoscience Program, GSC scientists are studying a former niobium mine in Oka, Quebec, where the ore is also enriched in rare earth elements. These studies will help to predict the potential environmental impacts at future rare earth mines across Canada, and will help to guide management of mine wastes.

While it’s important as individuals to move toward more environmentally-friendly technologies, it is also important to note that, like other mining operations, extracting rare earth elements creates its own environmental footprint. As society becomes increasingly reliant on modern technologies, it’s vital to understand both the security and availability of rare earth elements as well as how sourcing these materials impacts the environment. Canada has an opportunity to develop new supplies of these vital materials as a crucial step to ensuring the technologies we rely on remain secure and available.

Carbonatite with niobium and rare earth elements

Carbonatite with niobium and rare earth elements

Dr. Mike Parsons holds his smart phone in front of his #BIOExpo17 exhibit. Smart phones are full of rare earth elements.

Dr. Mike Parsons holds his smart phone in front of his #BIOExpo17 exhibit. Smart phones are full of rare earth elements.

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