Most congresspeople probably haven’t thought about chemistry since high school, but they’ll soon have to in order to protect the economy. In March, Colorado representative Mike Coffman introduced a bill to ramp up mining of 17 “rare-earth” elements, so called because large deposits of them are hard to find. Some are essential for electric auto motors and laser defense systems, and with demand for those rising, now is the time to stock up.
Rare-earths combine particularly easily with other elements to form useful compounds and alloys, such as neodymium-iron-boron, the strongest, lightest magnet for motors. “No other element can do that,” says Jack Lifton, an independent metals consultant. “Once we’ve used them up, the periodic table is closed for business.” Similar stories are playing out across the table. For many elements, we’ll eventually need to find more, recycle, or move on to another. Launch the gallery for a status report for 10 of them.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.