Goodbye Fossil Fuel Dependence, Hello Rare Earth Dependence!
It may not look like much, but this dysprosium and who controls it may be the source of at least political conflict in coming years. Photo: Wikipedia.
Fellow TreeHugger John Laumer recently brought to our attention the fact that control of rare earth metals is Achilles heel of the hybrid and electric vehicles, and wind turbines we all are counting on to make the future a decidedly greener place. OnEarth, the magazine of the NRDC, reminds us that what this means is that what we're doing is replacing our dependence on oil suppliers, with dependence on countries supplying these metals—China being right at the fore:Chinese Domestic Demand to Surpass Supply in a Few Years
Having shrewdly positioned itself as the OPEC of rare earths, China is now putting the squeeze on foreign consumers, clamping down on exports by raising tariffs, lowering export quotas, and imposing production limits. Worldwide demand for rare earths is expected to grow by 10 percent a year, yet production has leveled off in recent years. Most of China's annual supply is now staying in the country as consumers there buy more cars and electronic devices. "Sometime in 2011 to 2012, Chinese domestic demand will surpass Chinese domestic production," says Jack Lifton, an analyst and consultant who specializes in what he calls the "technology metals" and advises mining industry clients developing rare earth projects in North America. "This means no more Chinese exports of rare earths, other than in finished goods made in China that they allow to be exported."
Rare Earths Only Found in Select Places
The main thrust of the article is that rare earths are only known to exist in a few places in the world: Mostly China, Australia and North America, with much smaller reserves known to exist in India, Brazil, Malaysia and South Africa. Of all of these China's reserves are far and away the largest. Furthermore, tapping into these deposits in areas where production doesn't already exist isn't something that happens overnight.
One Wind Turbine = 700+ Pounds of Rare Earth Metals
To put this all in perspective, in terms of what this means for products you may own, OnEarth says,
A single three-megawatt wind generator (modest, as utility-scale wind turbines go) contains more than a ton of super magnets, more than 700 pounds of which is neodymium. A typical hybrid car, such as a Toyota Prius, contains around 25 pounds of rare earth metals -- mostly lanthanum in its rechargeable battery and neodymium in its drive motor. "The global annual production of neodymium, essentially all of which is mined in China, is today at an all-time high," Lifton says. "There is no surplus -- the existing demand uses up all that's produced each year. So to build more wind turbines and hybrid cars, you'll need more neodymium. Where are you going to get it?"