Geoethics Forums: The Grey Side of Green

Shaun Taylor, University of Washington / Educurious


Geoethics Forums is a format for a classroom discussion and creative resolution of an ethical issue. Students research a particular dilemma, identify stakeholders, and then consider possible solutions and tradeoffs working towards the most acceptable path. This example case study explores the use of strategic minerals for green and clean technology.


High school Earth Science – undergrad non majors geoscience

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Students would benefit by knowing about mineral resource mining, refining and lifecycle issues.

How the activity is situated in the course
The activity could be used as course introduction to set the stage for research and discovery of course content. It could also be used for a culminating activity.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
From Next Generation Science Standards
  • HS-ESS3-1. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.
  • HS-ESS3-2. Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and mineral resources based on cost-benefit ratios.*
  • HS-ESS3-4. Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.*

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Synthesis, application, seeing multiple points of view

Other skills goals for this activity
Collaboration in groups, research, oral presentation, role playing

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

Students explore tradeoffs around issue.

Description and Teaching Materials

Geoethics Forums is a format for a classroom discussion and creative resolution of an ethical issue. Students research a particular dilemma, identify stakeholders, and then consider possible solutions and tradeoffs working towards the most acceptable path. Learn more about Geoethics Forums and how to conduct them.

In this project, students will research and conduct a Geoethics Forum, a kind of role-playing and collaborative problem solving simulation. The Geoethics Forum will lead to understanding and possible resolution of a thorny personal or social issue that has emerged due to new technology. The example case study provided focuses on the use of strategic minerals for green and clean technology.


Case Study Scenario

Geoethics Issue Starter: The Grey Side of Green - Download this example (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB May10 14)


How do we evaluate the impacts and tradeoffs for green technology development and the supply and demand patterns for rare strategic minerals?


Emerging energy efficient and renewable energy technologies increasingly rely on the properties of rare minerals. Rare earth minerals are 17 elements in the periodic table which have desirable chemical properties in alloys and new materials. A typical electric vehicle uses 4.5 kg of rare earth materials. Often the suppliers for these materials are outside of the US due to the location of mineral deposits, or due to the economics of extraction, cost of labor, environmental regulations, or government policies. Some of the key elements are listed below.

  • Element Uses Supply Issue
  • Indium, gallium, tellurium Photovoltaic coatings
  • Transparent conductors for thin film plastic solar cells China, (In)
  • US, Peru (te) Byproduct of zinc refining
  • Dysprosium, praesodynmium, neodymium Magnets for wind turbines, automobiles, dysoprosium allows magnets to work at high temperatures China provide 98% of dysprosium. Pollution, wastewater, 1 ton=>2000 tons of toxic waste, export quotas
  • Lanthanum, cobalt, cerium, niobium Batteries, phosphors for lighting, catalytic converters Congo, Brazil Bioaccumulators
  • Terbium, europium, yttrium Phosphors for energy efficient lighting China, US, India, Sri Lanka, Australia (te)
  • lithium batteries 50% from northern Chile Extracted from brine, Uses 2/3 of available freshwater, copper and aluminum are bigger impact

Perspectives to consider

  • Climate Change and Energy- Renewable energy is needed to provide long term energy supplies, and in the short term to slow the process of climate change.
  • The environmental impacts of resource extraction- The mining, refining, and disposal of the tailings. Though the total amount of these elements that are produced are comparatively small much ore must be mined and processed and often there are other toxic metals which are released in the process.
  • Security of resource supply- many of the supplies are concentrated in a few countries. Some elements are extremely rare.
  • Economic benefits- new technologies and make 21st century jobs and reinvigorate resource extraction industries by changing commodities
  • Social justice- In a global economy impacts and benefit may be far separated.
  • Lifecycle issues- Electronics produce enormous amounts of ewaste and difficulty with recycling, green technology may have same issues at the end of the useful life.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The forum should not be a debate. The goal is to understand different positions and then seek a common ground resolution. The Grey Side of Green Scenario is posed as a general, open ended problem. This could be done in a much more personalized manner using the following hypothetical scenario starter.

The principle investigator of the solar cell research research center Jan Soleul develops thin cell plastic solar cells. These devices have the potential of replacing silicon cells by being mass produced in roll printers much like printing plastic bags. Plastic solar cells are flexible and lightweight. They can be applied to windows or wall surfaces potentially turning an entire building into a solar panel. The cells do require a transparent conducting layer which collects charge from the organic layers beneath. Indium tin oxide or ITO is the most common conductor also used in touchscreen computers and phones. Soleul had applied for a special grant from the University energy innovation fund. She was rejected with the following statement from a reviewer. "While your research design is exemplary and your innovative device has promise to greatly decrease the cost of solar technology we are disappointed that you still rely on the standard ITO conductor material. As you know China has dominated the world supply for this element and has recently indicated its willingness to use mineral resources to apply leverage for political advantage. The extraction and refining of indium is also problematic. It is also unethical in our view to export our pollution to poor countries.

How should Soleul respond?


Students use a rubric to compare solutions. Teachers look at the geoethical worksheet that each student prepares.

References and Resources

Resources for the Grey Side of Green forum:

Further Research