BEN BOVA: Nov. 28, 2010 Rare earth elements are in the news.

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Rare earth elements are in the news.

They have strange names, such as neodymium, scandium, yttrium.

Although they’re not really all that rare, they are messy to dig out of the ground and difficult to refine. Even so, rare earth elements are very useful, being important ingredients in lasers, superconducting magnets, batteries for hybrid automobiles, and the kinds of magnets used in computer hard disc drives.

China produces roughly 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth elements. A few weeks ago China tightened its exports of these elements to the United States and Japan, two of the biggest users of them.

The Chinese government says it is limiting its exports of rare earths because it wants to improve the environmental conditions of its mines — and, besides, it needs to keep a larger percentage of them for its own growing industries.

Japan is looking into the possibilities of opening a rare earth mine in Vietnam, and in the U.S. Molycorp Minerals plans to reopen a mine in California it had closed in 2002 when radioactive waste was discovered leaking from a pipe there.

But new facilities would have to be built to refine the ores from these mines. At present, the only operating refinery for rare earths happens to be — you guessed it — in China.

Cynics believe the Chinese are merely trying to drive up the price of the rare earths. Conspiracy theorists see a plot afoot in Beijing to control a natural resource that is vital for many high-tech industries.

Space enthusiasts, though, see an opportunity.

The solar system contains millions, perhaps billions, of small chunks of metals and minerals, which are called asteroids. The largest of them, Ceres, is less than 600 miles wide. Most of them are much smaller, tiny chunks of rock left over from the creation of the solar system nearly five billion years ago.

Most of the asteroids circle around the Sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, roughly four times farther from the Sun than our own planet Earth. But there are thousands that are much closer to Earth. Some of them actually cross Earth’s orbit. They are called Near Earth Asteroids: NEAs. (Astronomers are not known for poetic nomenclature.)

When President Barack Obama scrapped NASA’s plans for returning to the Moon and building permanent bases there, he proposed sending astronauts to one of the NEAs, instead.

Now, many of these asteroids happen to be rich in rare earth elements. In fact, most of the rare earth mines on our planet are situated at the sites of ancient asteroid impacts.

If we’re going to send astronauts to an asteroid, why not include a geologist who can bring back some samples of rare earths? Why not give the mission a purpose beyond merely exploring for the sake of scientific knowledge? Why not begin to exploit the natural resources that lie among the asteroids?

Such an effort could act as an incentive for private industry to move farther into space than merely providing rockets to ferry people and cargo to the International Space Station. It could also show the world — and particularly the Chinese government — that we can move beyond our dependence on their resources (and ploys).

Mining rare earths from asteroids would be enormously expensive, at first. But the effort could help to start a transition toward developing space industries. In time, we could see many industrial operations running in space, using virtually free solar energy, while our world becomes cleaner and greener: a residential zone, with industry moving off our planet.

Would a move in this direction influence the Chinese government to relax its grip on rare-earth exports? There is a precedent for this sort of thing.

In the 1980s, when former President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”) it started a chain of events that led eventually to the fall of the Soviet Union. We didn’t go ahead with SDI — indeed, we still do not have a credible defense against ballistic missiles. But the possibility that the U.S. might develop missile defenses helped to crack the Soviet Union apart.

The possibility of mining rare earths from asteroids might help influence China, too.

Ben Bova is the author of nearly 125 books, including “The Return,” his latest futuristic novel. Dr. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com.

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