A Black Lake in Baotou


Rare earth elements
via Wikimedia Commons

Rare earth elements are in much of the technology people use. Katy Blake and Bruce Gulland look at what happens when people demand more and more rare earth elements.

Transcript


Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Katy Blake.

Voice 2 

And I’m Bruce Gulland. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 

Outside the city of Baotou China, there is a large lake. But this lake does not look like a normal lake. The water is not blue or clear. It is not fresh or beautiful. This lake has even been called the worst place on earth! Tim Maughan from BBC News visited the lake. He described it in a report:

Voice 3 

“The man-made lake is filled with a black, barely-liquid, poisonous sludge. Many pipes line the edge. They pour out thick, black, chemical waste from the factories that surround the lake. The smell of chemicals and the sound from the pipes invade my senses. It feels like hell on earth.”

Voice 2 

Many people all over the world depend on this lake. But they do not even know that they do. The chemicals in the lake come from factories. The factories process rare earth elements. These natural elements are found in the ground. They are necessary for many products. People everywhere in the world use these products. Today’s Spotlight is on rare earth elements.

Voice 1 

You probably own a product that contains rare earth elements. Things like cars, lights, and magnets all contain rare earth elements. But they are particularly necessary in technological products like smart phones and computers. The world increasingly depends on new technology. So people are demanding more and more rare earth elements.

Voice 2 

There are many different elements under the ground. Rare earth elements are all mixed up together. To find and remove these elements is complex. It takes a lot of dangerous chemicals to remove and separate elements from each other. Some elements take thousands of steps before they are ready for use. This produces large amounts of poisonous chemical waste.

Voice 1 

Processing one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of poisonous waste. The factories in Baotou produce ten million tons of waste water every year. Officials at the factories made a lake to contain the waste. And the factories continue to empty the chemical waste into the lake.

Voice 2 

Jamie Choi works for the environmental organization Greenpeace China. She is an expert on poison. She told the Daily Mail,

Voice 4 

“Throughout this process, every step of the rare earth mining process is terrible for the environment.”

Voice 1 

Around 90% of all rare earth elements are mined in China. Around 50% are from the Bayan Obo mines near Baotuo. Before the mines opened, the area around Baotuo was farmland. Li Guirong has lived in the area his whole life. He told the Guardian news,

Voice 5 

“Before the factories were built, there were just fields here as far as the eye can see. In the place of this poisonous sludge, there were vegetables and fruit.”

Voice 2 

Li explained that families who lived in the area did not notice the pollution at first. But after a while, the crops in the nearby villages started to fail. Su Bairen was a farmer. He told the Daily Mail,

Voice 6 

“Anything we planted was sickly. Then our animals also started to sicken and die.”

Voice 1 

Then, the people also began to suffer. Their teeth fell out. Their hair turned white. They began to get breathing and skin diseases. The rates of cancer went up. Babies were born with soft bones. Choi from Greenpeace China told the Daily Mail,

Voice 4 

“We may not know what happens when we purchase products that contain rare earth elements. But we are taking part in huge environmental and community destruction.”

Voice 2 

But the good news is that it does not have to be this way! M.I.T. is a technology university in the United States. It did a study on rare earth mining. The study showed that there is hope. There are solutions that make mining and processing safer for everyone.

Voice 1 

For example, the black sludge waste in Baotou Lake can actually be re-used. This may seem strange. Recycling this water is one of the most immediate methods to improve rare earth element processing. When factories use chemicals to separate the earth elements, the chemicals get washed away. New technology removes the chemicals from the wastewater. Then the water is cleaner. And people can use the chemicals again. Molycorp is a rare earth mining company from the United States. It uses this kind of technology to recycle wastewater. Molycorp recovered 90% of the harmful chemicals from their wastewater. They found that this cleans the environment and saves money!

Voice 2 

Waste water recycling improves the old processing method. But there are also new processing methods being developed. One of these is bioleaching. This process uses natural bacteria to separate elements from each other. This process costs a lot less money. However, it is slow. The old method takes about ten hours. Bioleaching takes around 30 days. However, researchers at M.I.T. say that more research and development could improve the process.

Voice 1 

Another main way of improving rare earth mining is through enforcing laws. For example, the lake in Baotou could have a layer of protection under it. This would contain the chemical waste. It would keep the chemical waste in the lake. The chemical waste would not leak into the ground water. It would better protect families living nearby. Countries can make laws to require stronger environmental protections. Making sure that companies follow these laws could improve the situation around the factories.

Voice 2 

The study from M.I.T. also looked at solutions in the far, far future. There are now more than seven billion people on planet earth. The population is growing quickly. More and more countries are developing. This means more and more people are using electronic technology. The need for rare earth minerals is increasing at a very fast rate. Some people do not think that there are enough rare earth minerals to support future demand.

Voice 1 

Some researchers have an unusual solution to the demand for rare earth elements. They asked: What if humans could get rare earth minerals from outer space? Asteroids are rocks that circle around the earth. They contain many rare earth minerals. Could humans find a way to mine asteroids?

Voice 2 

It may take hundreds of years before this solution is possible. But there are many actions that could improve the way people process rare earth elements. These solutions are possible right now. And they are necessary. Technological products are a growing part of modern life. But we must produce and use them without sacrificing the health of communities and the environment.

Voice 1 

The writer of this program was Jen Hawkins. The producer was Luke Haley. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called, ‘A Black Lake in Baotuo’.

Voice 2 

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question:

What technology do you use every day? Would you miss it if you could not use it?

Comments


Avatar Spotlight
Dipto Karmakar
said on October 12, 2015

I use my mobile,Desktop PC , Internet everyday and obviously I miss this if i couldn’t use it.

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mk_yacine
said on February 09, 2017

thank you so much ..that was great work