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Hank Green: Welcome! You're just in time to learn about lanthanides!

[intro music]

It's the, it's the periodic table of elements. It's wonderful. You've got your noble gases over here, and hydrogen, the building block of everything in the universe, over here, you've got your alkaline metals, and gold and other lovely regular metals in the middle here.... But what is this? What are these elements that aren't in the table proper? They're, like, in their own table. What makes you guys so special?

Those are the lanthanides on top and the actinides on the bottom, and they're down there because they can't be trusted around the other elements. Well, that's not true. They actually could be a part of the table, but if they became part of the table, the table would be too big to put on a piece of paper, so they sort of shove them down to the bottom. Basically, like Alaska. You always sort of, like, disembody Alaska and bring it down because it's just too big, uh, gotta break it off.

They are actually kinda crazy. Actinides are, uh, they contain all the elements that we make nuclear weapons out of. But the lanthanides on top there, they're actually responsible for a lot of the coolest things that we have as 21st century citizens -- laptops, cell phones, plasma screen TVs, solar panels, wind turbines, the catalytic converter on your car that makes your car not so horrible for the environment, and also the pollution control equipment that we stick on top of big gigantic coal-fired power plants. All that stuff made possible by our friends the lanthanides. Yeah, rare earth elements for president!

[on phone] Yeah, mm-hm? No. Oh, f s !

Because our rare earth lanthanide friends are so frickin' awesome, of course they have to have a dark side.

Despite their name, a lot of rare earths are really common. They're called "rare" because they're hard to find in large concentrations. They like to mix together with a bunch of other minerals and elements underground; there's never, like, a vein full of indium. So extracting rare earths -- and especially refining them -- is a huge pain in the ass.

In addition to giving you a huge pain in the ass, refining rare earths also gives you mountains of low-level radioactive waste, and, I mean, who wants to deal with that? I'm actually gonna give you a second to think about who would wanna deal with all that. ... Yeah, it's China.

In the past 20 years, we've become extremely dependent on rare earth metals for our, y'know, everything. And since none of us want gigantic piles of waste dumped in our back yards, we've left about 95% of the processing of rare earth metals to Chinese refineries, which are hardly regulated at all and in some cases just totally illegal. And believe me when I say they're making an unholy, god-forsaken mess over there. I'm talking giant sizzling lakes of acidic waste. (Oh God, I can't breathe.)

But the Chinese are also totally making bank off all this, and they're also wielding a lot of political power, like if China got angry at the United States tomorrow, they could be like, "No more neodymium for you!" and then we wouldn't have any neodymium, which would mean, like, no new wind turbines or high-powered electric motors for hybrid cars.

So other countries, including the United States, have cautiously begun building their (much more expensive, much cleaner) rare earth refineries, probably just in time for the bubble to pop on all of this stuff. But we still have to figure out something to do with all of that toxic byproduct.

Nobody has come up with a really good solution to that problem. Just recently, a rare earth mine in California opened back up after being shut down in 1998 for toxic leakage, but now the company's promising that they've got it all figured out -- no big deal. One of their solutions involves covering toxic waste water pools with interlocked 18-sided walls to prevent evaporation. Yeah. Plastic balls covering a radioactive sludge pond. I'm not filled with an overwhelming sense of confidence in that idea, but the state of California seems to be satisfied. 21st century problems, y'all.

If you wanna know where we got all the information for this episode, we've set you up with some links below so that you can learn more about rare earth elements and all of the controversy and awesome things surrounding them, and you can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter. If you have any questions for us, you can also leave those in the comments -- we're always there and we're always looking for new ideas for episodes of SciShow, so please let us know what you're curious about.