New York Times technology columnist and host of Nova’s “Making Stuff” miniseries David Pogue is pretty clued in to the latest innovations, but that’s not the only reason he’s interested in getting an electric car. Environmental benefits aside, he’s been test-driving the Chevy Volt and may get one because of a particular incentive. “My town in Connecticut installed charging stations at the train station, where there is a three-year waiting list for parking spaces. If you get an electric car you get a space and free electricity,” he says.
This week, Pogue hosts the PBS “Nova” special “Hunting the Elements,” a documentary about the essential building blocks of the Earth. “Going into it, I thought, ‘It will be a documentary about things that have existed for millions of years, the elements.’ But what I realize is it's a news show. It's cutting edge and new. We think that the big natural resource shortage confronting mankind is petroleum. You have just seen the warm up act. The bigger one is rare earth elements,” he notes. “In doing this show, we learned that every single modern electronic--flat‑panel TVs, hybrid cars, electric cars, every single iPhone, iPad, and Android phone--has some of these rare earth elements, neodynium and cerium and longer names you've never heard of. And 97 percent of the world's rare earth elements come from China. And over the last three years, they have been decreasing the export to other countries by 30 percent a year until it's going to be zero. It's very calculated and very scary. There is a shortage of these things, especially considering our consumption of these electronic goods.
“The second largest deposits of these rare earth minerals happens to be in California, but it was shut down 10 years ago for environmental violations and because nobody thought we needed rare earths, because this modern digital era had not yet taken flower,” Pogue continues. “So they just reopened it in 2011. For the first time, they're going 24 hours a day. For every ton, they get an ounce. It’s not a great yield, but they hope that by four years from now or so, the United States can be producing 25 percent of the world's rare earths, thus saving us all. But even so, they're in short supply, and this is something Congress is aware of but the public is not. Public doesn't know anything about this looming crisis, but it's huge.”
For Pogue, the highlight of making the special, which premieres April 4, was “blowing up stuff,” but “it’s not just fun and games,” he says. “This is serious science.”