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One Step Toward Energy Independence (And Three Steps Back)

'Get Ready, 'Cause Here I Come' - Rare Earth, the rock band

The emotional appeal of the New Green Economy rests on its promise to free us from our addiction to oil. Our carbon-free future envisions a land of Rainbows, Unicorns and Magic Windmills, with a Prius in every garage. Our energy will be as free as the wind; no more will our thirst for petroleum make us slaves to foreign regimes.

There’s just one hitch.

Green technology is dependent on magnets, big magnets. Those magnets must be lightweight and high-performance for optimum efficiency.

A utility scale wind turbine uses more than a ton of heavy-duty and lightweight magnets, 700 pounds of which is neodymium. Rare earth magnets are still crucial in the electric motors that control the guidance vanes on the sides of missiles. And they are essential in hybrid cars, the manufacturers of which are already reeling from issues with rare metal availability.

Issues? Well, then, just open up the neodymium mines. The problem with that, though, is that 95% of the world’s neodymium comes from a single country. That country is China.

Neodymium, dysprosium and terbium are members of a class of elements called “rare earth metals”. The word “rare” is part of their name for a reason. On the periodic table, the rare earth metals occupy that region labeled the “Lanthanide Series”, which most of us avoided studying in high school chemistry. The rare earths tend to be soft, lightweight, silvery metals with properties that make them particularly valuable: they are strongly magnetic, and retain their magnetism at high operating temperatures.

About 100 tonnes of dysprosium are produced worldwide each year, with 99% of that total produced in China. Dysprosium prices have climbed nearly sevenfold since 2003, to $53 a pound. [Source.]

By comparison, neodymium is more abundant. Some 7,000 tonnes a year are mined worldwide, 95% of that in China.

There’s nothing I like about being dependent on Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil, but trading that dependence for an exclusive dependence on China is insane.

For one thing, the passage above notes the rising price of the metals. China’s growing economy puts them in direct competition with the West for resources worldwide, and they have become increasingly aggressive in their self-interest.

The concern about supply is not abstract handwringing. Just last year, China threatened to curtail exports:

China’s government started to curb output and exports in 2006. China may stockpile the rare dirt in a strategic reserve. Chinese exports of rare earths fell 35 percent in 2008 from 53,300 tons in 2006, all the while demand grows in areas of military defense, missiles, electronic information and green energy. China needs 70,000 tons of rare earths a year. They already cut 2009 output quotas of rare earths by 8.1 percent. They also encourage their industrialists to export processed products rather than just shipping the rare dirt abroad. Liang Shuhe, deputy head of foreign trade at the Ministry of Commerce said his government would “encourage exports of high value-adding, high-end products instead of the raw materials.” [Source. Emphasis added.]

Translation: We won’t be building wind turbines in the U.S. We’ll be importing the finished product from China.

Another concern: the environment. Progressives seem to think that if we farm out a difficult issue to another country it somehow absolves us from responsibility for the consequences. (Can you say rendition?) The environmental record of totalitarian regimes is universally appalling, and China is no exception.

Of course, China’s extensive mining has taken a heavy toll on the environment; it was the country’s tolerance for quick and dirty extraction that made it the global leader. To get at the rare earth, powerful acid is pumped down bore holes, where it dissolves some of the earths. The slurry is then pumped into leaky artificial ponds with earthen dams. Much of this occurs at small, under-regulated or unlicensed mines. [Source.]

Last September, an article in the New York Times highlighted the nervousness of Western economies when a bureaucratic reshuffling in China left the future of rare earth exports in doubt:

Wang Caifang, deputy director general of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, tried on Thursday to allay concerns that the draft rules would become the final policy, saying the regulatory review was still under way. …

During an interview after her speech, Ms. Wang said that China would continue to set an annual quota for the export of each mineral, adding, “I don’t think it will be zero.”

Well, that’s certainly comforting.

What should we do about it? There’s not much we can do about it, if we’re committed to a wind energy future.

On the other hand, one responsible reaction to this set of facts would be to look for a domestic, secure, proven technology as an alternative to wind: might I recommend oil and natural gas?

Cross-posted at VladEnBlog.

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