Hidden in the Inner Mongolia in China, there is a toxic lake created by our thirst for smartphones, gadgets but also green technology, discovers Tim Maughan, BBC reporter. The artificial lake is a creation of the waste byproducts of rare earth mining. Welcome to Baotou, the largest city of Inner Mongolia.
China is the biggest producer of rare earth minerals. In 2009 China produced 95% of the world’s supply of these elements. But on the other side, there is a devastated environment caused by this extraction. These elements can be found in everything from magnets in wind turbines and electric car motors, to the electronics of smartphones and flatscreen TVs.
The extraction factories and complexes are located in the city of Baotou. Before the extraction started in 1950´, the population of this city was about 97 thousand people. Nowadays, the population is about 2.5 million. The streets are wide to accommodate to the trucks crossing the city, massive pipes run along roads and sidewalks. At times it’s impossible to tell where the vast structure of refineries complex ends and the city begins. After it rains the roads are flooded with water turned black by coal dust. The air is filled with a constant smell of sulphur.
Fascinating thing on elements like neodymium and cerium (both extracted in this area) is that even they are called “rare”, they are quite common. Neodymium is as “rare” as copper or nickel. China produces 90% of the global market’s neodymium but only 30% of the world’s deposits are located there.
So why are they so rare?? It is because this extraction, which is hazardous and toxic process. For example, cerium is extracted by crushing mineral mixtures and dissolving them in sulphuric and nitric acid, which result in a vast amount of poisonous waste as a byproduct. This extraction and processing of these elements have the big influence on the environment. That is why other countries avoid extraction of these rare earth minerals.
The best proof of environment destruction is the toxic lake in Baotou. It was created by damming a river and flooding what was once farm land. Today, it is a “tailings pond” – a dumping ground for waste byproducts. It takes only 20 minutes to reach the lake by car from the centre of the city. But the scariest thing about it is that this waste is created as a byproduct of elements used also in green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars. The lake is so big, that you can see it on Google Maps. If you zoom in enough you can see the dozens of pipes that line the shore.
The group around Tim Maughan collected some samples from the lake and took them to the UK to be tested. The results were alarming: the clay was radioactive.
Without places as Baotou, we could not use majority of our modern technologies. But without modern technologies, there would not be such places as Baotou. Maybe we should reconsider our desire to buy new smartphone or tablet every time the producer release new model.