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Monday, February 7, 2011
feature story
Rare Earth Elements Equal Green Energy

Scandium is used in s in high-intensity discharge lamps and light bulbs.
Scandium is used in high-intensity discharge lamps and light bulbs.
The January issue of Chemistry World includes a warning on impending shortages of certain elements. Among them are the rare earth elements, in particular neodymium, production of which, it is reckoned, will have to increase five times to build enough magnets for the number of wind turbines deemed necessary for a fully renewable future. Rough calculations indicate that this would still take 50–100 years to implement, depending on exactly what proportion of the renewable electricity budget would be met from wind power, and if the manufacturing capacity and other resources of materials and energy needed for this Herculean task will prevail.

Neodymium is a rare earth metal used extensively to produce permanent magnets found in everything from computer hard disks and cell phones to wind turbines and cars. Neodymium magnets are the strongest permanent magnets known, and a neodymium magnet of a few grams can lift a thousand times its own weight. The magnets that drive a Toyota Prius hybrid’s electric motor use around 1 kilogram of neodymium, while 10–15 kg of lanthanum is used in its battery. Interestingly, neodymium magnets were invented in the 1980s to overcome the global cobalt supply shock that occurred as the result of internal warfare in Zaire (now Congo). Around one ton of Rare Earth Elements (REE) based permanent magnets is needed to provide each MW of wind-turbine power.

By alloying neodymium with dysprosium, magnets are created that more readily maintain their magnetism at the high temperatures of hybrid car engines. However, far more dysprosium relative to neodymium is required than occurs naturally in the REE ores, meaning that another source of dysprosium must be found if hybrid cars are to be manufactured at a seriously advancing rate. 97 percent of REEs come from China, and it appears that China will run out of dysprosium within 15 years, or sooner if demand continues to soar.

Peak oil may already be with us, and peak coal in 10–15 years, while peak lithium remains a subject of speculation. Peak neodymium is the latest threat to green energy, while doubt emerges over the security of many other element groups including the rare earths, the platinum group metals, and elements such as antimony, beryllium, gallium, germanium, graphite, indium, magnesium, niobium, tantalum, and tungsten. Helium (used to cool superconducting magnets in hospital MRI scanners) and phosphorus (in agricultural fertilizers) are also under threat.

If even "renewables" cannot save us from waning fossil fuel depletion, the only solution is to begin the deceleration of consumption to a lower-energy society based around local communities immediately, with vastly reduced inputs of energy and all kinds of "mined" resources. Recycling must be key to this most difficult transitional step, in hand with a new concept of a "circular economy," that aims to model nature where nothing is wasted.

Source: Chris Rhodes, Forbes/Energy Source blog



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