Cart 0

How Critical Elements Make Up our Modern World

Seminar Leader:
Eric Schelter; Co-leader Marta Guron


This course explored connections between the chemistry and physics of rare and unusual chemical elements, their presence in our lives in materials that comprise our ubiquitous electronic devices, and the environmental and human impacts of their supply chains. For example, the mysterious ‘rare earth metals’ are chemical elements that are essential in modern applications from renewable energy, to electric cars, imaging in medicine, and cell phone displays. The unique properties of these elements deliver powerful magnets that support wind power and clarity in MRI images. But, despite their many desirable chemical and physical properties, rare earths are extremely polluting in their primary mining and production. We followed supply chains for these and other ‘critical’ elements back to their sources, to understand how our modern materials needs impact (and often exploit) communities worldwide. And, we discussed the opportunities for science and engineering to improve this landscape, for example through the development of more environmentally benign mining chemistry and new chemistries to recycle elements from old technologies. The course aided in the development of materials for science curricula, by connecting chemical concepts to ‘real world’ problems and solutions. The fundamental chemistry and physics concepts including chemical elements, electron shells, ionic and covalent bonding, chemical and physical properties, electricity, magnetism, ‘critical materials,’ toxicity, chemical safety and others.

Unit TitleAuthor


Critical Metals and Their Real-World Applications

Ariel Coff
Keywords: earth metals, mining, periodic table

Changing Technology for a Changing Climate: Knowledge is not always power, but power is rarely ignorant

Chloe Glynn
Keywords: green technology, hands-on experiments, greenhouse gases, geopolitics, climate change, critical minerals, environment, fossil fuels, power, renewable energy, social media

The Museum of Gold

Kristin Nakaishi
Keywords: minerals, gold, economics, geology, Sociology

Sustainable? Systemic Dis-illusions?

Maya Bhagat
Keywords: critical metals, systems, sustainability, rare earth metals