Clean energy could lead to scarce materials

Apr 09, 2012 by David L. Chandler
An image of ultrapure neodymium under argon. Image: images-of-elements.com

As the world moves toward greater use of low-carbon and zero-carbon energy sources, a possible bottleneck looms, according to a new MIT study: the supply of certain metals needed for key clean-energy technologies.

Wind turbines, one of the fastest-growing sources of emissions-free electricity, rely on magnets that use the rare earth element neodymium. And the element dysprosium is an essential ingredient in some ’ motors. The supply of both elements — currently imported almost exclusively from China — could face significant shortages in coming years, the research found.

The study, led by a team of researchers at MIT’s Systems Laboratory — postdoc Elisa Alonso PhD ’10, research scientist Richard Roth PhD ’92, senior research scientist Frank R. Field PhD ’85 and principal research scientist Randolph Kirchain PhD ’99 — has been published online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, and will appear in print in a forthcoming issue. Three researchers from Ford Motor Company are co-authors.

The study looked at 10 so-called “rare earth metals,” a group of 17 elements that have similar properties and which — despite their name — are not particularly rare at all. All 10 elements studied have some uses in high-tech equipment, in many cases in technology related to low-carbon energy. Of those 10, two are likely to face serious supply challenges in the coming years.

The biggest challenge is likely to be for dysprosium: Demand could increase by 2,600 percent over the next 25 years, according to the study. Neodymium demand could increase by as much as 700 percent. Both materials have exceptional properties that make them especially well-suited to use in highly efficient, lightweight motors and batteries.

A single large wind turbine (rated at about 3.5 megawatts) typically contains 600 kilograms, or about 1,300 pounds, of rare earth metals. A conventional car uses a little more than one pound of rare earth materials — mostly in small motors, such as those that run the windshield wipers — but an electric car might use nearly 10 times as much of the material in its lightweight batteries and motors.

Currently, China produces 98 percent of the world’s rare earth metals, making those metals “the most geographically concentrated of any commercial-scale resource,” Kirchain says.

Historically, production of these metals has increased by only a few percent each year, with the greatest spurts reaching about 12 percent annually. But much higher increases in production will be needed to meet the expected new demand, the study shows.

China has about 50 percent of known reserves of rare earth metals; the United States also has significant deposits. Mining of these materials in the United States had ceased almost entirely — mostly because of environmental regulations that have increased the cost of production — but improved mining methods are making these sources usable again.

Rare earth elements are never found in isolation; instead, they’re mixed together in certain natural ores, and must be separated out through chemical processing. “They’re bundled together in these deposits,” Kirchain says, “and the ratio in the deposits doesn’t necessarily align with what we would desire” for the current manufacturing needs.

and are not the most widely used rare earth elements, but they are the ones expected to see the biggest “pinch” in supplies, Alonso explains, due to projected rapid growth in demand for high-performance permanent magnets.  

Kirchain says that when they talk about a pinch in the supply, that doesn’t necessarily mean the materials are not available. Rather, it’s a matter of whether the price goes up to a point where certain uses are no longer economically viable.

The researchers stress that their study does not mean there will necessarily be a problem meeting demand, but say that it does mean that it will be important to investigate and develop new sources of these materials; to improve the efficiency of their use in devices; to identify substitute materials; or to develop the infrastructure to recycle the metals once devices reach the end of their useful life. The purpose of studies such as this one is to identify those resources for which these developments are most pressing.

While the raw materials exist in the ground in amounts that could meet many decades of increased demand, Kirchain says the challenge comes in scaling up supply at a rate that matches expected increases in demand. Developing a new mine, including prospecting, siting, permitting and construction, can take a decade or more.

“The bottom line is not that we’re going to ‘run out,’” Kirchain says, “but it’s an issue on which we need focus, to build the supply base and to improve those technologies which use and reuse these materials. It needs to be a focus of research and development.”

Barbara Reck, a senior research scientist at Yale University who was not involved in this work, says “the results highlight the serious supply challenges that some of the rare earths may face in a low-carbon society.” The study is “a reminder to material scientists to continue their search for substitutes,” she says, and “also a vivid reminder that the current practice of not recycling any rare earths at end-of-life is unsustainable and needs to be reversed.”

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User comments : 25

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Shootist
1 / 5 (4) Apr 09, 2012
Clean energy could lead to scarce materials


Mine the asteroids. Problem solved.

Next?
antialias_physorg
3.3 / 5 (3) Apr 09, 2012
Mine the asteroids.

How?

- Do we have the technology to do that? No.
- Do we have the money to set up such a mining operation? No.
- Are rare Earths any more abundant/mineable on asteroids than on Earth? No.
- Even if there are any high purity asteroids out there - do we know where they are? No.
- Do we have a quick way of finding out? No.
- Will asteroid mining be up and running in quantities large enough before the crunch hits here (i.e. within the next 1-2 decades)? No.
- etc., etc.

... I think you haven't thought this one through.
Daein
1 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2012
Mine the asteroids.

How?


Sufficient monetary incentive that's how. If fossil fuels start to get expensive and if we run low on materials for other energy sources. Suddenly space will look like a fiscally economical place to find resources and people will put up the required capital to get to them.
Tennex
1 / 5 (1) Apr 09, 2012
group of 17 elements that have similar properties and which despite their name are not particularly rare at all..
Apparently the problem is not so simple: if the production of this metals becomes more expensive, than the "clean energy" produced with it, then the usage of these elements will become economically infeasible - no matter how widespread these elements actually are. In addition, the isolation of rare-erth metals is extraordinarily dirty from environmental perspective, which makes the labelling of "clean energy" somewhat relative. And this may limit all sources of so-called clean energy. Until we switch to cold fusion, then most of methods of clean renewable energy will just transfer the problem of limited resources from fuel area to the raw materials area and it cannot be considered as an actual progress.
Scottingham
1 / 5 (1) Apr 09, 2012
If only there was some super-high energy dense technology that wasn't scarce...that didn't put out any emissions and ran at 95% of power 24x7 for years without refueling.

Nope, not unicorn farts...fission, bitches!
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Apr 09, 2012
Do we have the technology to do that? No.
- Do we have the money to set up such a mining operation? No.

The technology exists and funding will follow if profits won't be plundered.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2012
The technology exists and funding will follow if profits won't be plundered.

No company will shell out the bucks required to set up such a mining operation. They'll all wait for the government (in your lingo: socialism) to fund it for them so that they can reap the benefit. As always.

Sufficient monetary incentive that's how. If fossil fuels start to get expensive and if we run low on materials for other energy sources.

Point being: When fossil fuels get to be expensive enough it will be worthwhile to extract the rare earths from dirt (as the article notes: rare earth's aren't rare at all. They are present in any clump of dirt. Just not in high concentration)
It will be economical to do so WAY before it will be economical to get them via asteroid mining.
rubberman
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 09, 2012
Do we have the technology to do that? No.
- Do we have the money to set up such a mining operation? No.

The technology exists and funding will follow if profits won't be plundered.


I'm just happy to see you have become a proponent of alternatives to fossil fuel....even a totally unrealistic one such as rare element asteroid mining.
perrycomo
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 09, 2012
The chinese will trim the supply as long as there are no initiatives for mining in the western world . The reason is very simple it guarantees the best prices . When the west intends to start mining again then all of a sudden the supply side from china will increase and prices will fall a bit till they have killed all the initiatives of western mining . They did it before . Further more when they would find an amount of rare earth metals to day they mine to morrow . If there is a village or a couple of thousand farmers living there , they just give them notice to fuck off in seven days , so there is no need for a decade preparation . That is the way of a totalitarian chinese system , eventually the west will loose the economic war , because the opponent has other morals .
Infinion
Apr 09, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2012
Why? Neodymium and dysprosium have nice properties. But there are other materials that have magnetic properties, too. It's not like one cannot build an electric motor or generator without them. Maybe a little bigger. Maybe a little less efficient. But if China ever decides not to sell its raw materials (which is its right to do) then we'll make do with what we have. Never fear.
kochevnik
3 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2012
Nope, not unicorn farts...fission, bitches!
The fission plant just south of me is now a fizzle plant. As I posted prior the cooling tubes were defective. Moreover bundled together they could collectively bulge and together explode. Seems PG&E agreed with me and shut the bitch down. Aside from that, the dome lids are defective and there are dozens of US nuke plants with the same defective design. They can't contain the radioactive steam in the event of a breech. Wonderful combination there.
Sanescience
1 / 5 (1) Apr 09, 2012
"Mining of these materials in the United States had ceased almost entirely mostly because of environmental regulations that have increased the cost of production"

Ug! That is less than useless. How about giving the readers enough information to draw an accurate picture of the situation, I would have said...

Mining of these materials around the world had ceased almost entirely mostly because of one nation dumping the market with a cheap product produced with out regards for the safety of workers or damage to the environment. This was allowed by the WTO to curry favor with and ultimately try to bring said nation into compliance with international standards for IP and copyright properties. This is now seen as a lost cause and China has accomplished most of it's mission to force/blackmail expertise in manufacturing of "green energy" into their country where they now send their metals with little concern to the damage dealt to foreign manufacturing and jobs.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2012
"Rare earths are not specifically rare, but processing them has been cost prohibitive. Toxic materials are often involved in their processing. Radioactive materials are often found in the same areas, increasing risks to the environment.

Smith said Molycorp, which owns a rare-earth mine in the Mojave Desert in Nevada, is aiming to produce one-quarter of the world's supply by 2014.

Read more: http://www.upi.co...raFPjKxj
"
Sanescience
1 / 5 (1) Apr 09, 2012
A quick comment on fission based energy. There is a band wagon for thorium and I understand why. I do have one benefit for going the direction of a fast neutron reactor though, and that is we have all this nuclear waste sitting around already that could power them for the next several thousand years without the need to start new giant open pit mines for the thorium. We would be getting rid of something we already want to get rid of.
Tennex
1 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2012
We would be getting rid of something we already want to get rid of
Only theoretically, the composition of reactor must be very well defined, or the behaviour of reactor becomes unpredictable and unstable. The safety limits don't enable the operation of less stable reactors stuffed with undefined waste or with thorium which becomes fissile only during nuclear reaction. Such idea appear nice at the paper, but in reality they cannot compete with uranium reactors, the safety of which is not very high already in general.
wwqq
1 / 5 (1) Apr 09, 2012
[...]the safety of which is not very high already in general.


There exists no other power source with such an enviable safety record, even assuming LNT.

Germany has a dozen or so fossil fuel Chernobyls per year; it's not an accident, no disaster zones are declared and nobody is evacuated; people just die.

China has several dozen just in coal.

Small scale, decentralized biomass(i.e. how much of the world heats food and water) has a hundred or so chernobyls per year.

Hydropower has infrequent, enormous disasters, e.g. banqiao dam; On a per TWh basis it is best case a factor two worse than nuclear(europe only) and worst case(world) an order of magnitude worse.

Solar, wind and other useless piddlepower has few deaths, but the denominator is so tiny that it's still worse than nuclear on a per TWh basis.
wwqq
not rated yet Apr 09, 2012
The safety limits don't enable the operation of less stable reactors stuffed with undefined waste...


The waste is well defined and characterized. It is LWR waste, with a concentration of various TRU isotopes corresponding to the level of burnup and how long it has been left sitting(The only decay that is material is Pu-241 -> Am-241).
Tennex
1 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2012
There exists no other power source with such an enviable safety record, even assuming LNT.
This probably doesn't explain, why we have Pacific ocean full of radioactive caesium from Fukushima plant by now. The cold fusion will beat all other energy sources both in cost, both in safety. I wouldn't invest into nuclear energy a single pfennig, being a German. The payback period of nuclear plants is in decades and all these investments would be devaluated soon with implementation of cold fusion.
Tennex
1 / 5 (1) Apr 09, 2012
The waste is well defined and characterized. It is LWR waste, with a concentration of various TRU isotopes corresponding to the level of burnup and how long it has been left sitting(The only decay that is material is Pu-241 -> Am-241).
Regarding the breeder and thorium reactors my stance is very clear - we have no sufficient technology for their safe operation yet. Even classical uranium reactors are working at their technological limits - can you imagine the steel pressurized to 200 kBars at 400 degress? These are conditions, under which the classical water cooled reactors are operating. The usage of breeder reactors would require the cooling with molten metals and may other problems, which will move us much more closer to nuclear disaster.

http://www.ieer.o...heet.pdf
hikenboot
5 / 5 (1) Apr 09, 2012
If we build 10,800 lithium LFTR reactors we would produce enough energy to power USA, and we would be able to consume stockpiles of Uranium in the process. Only short lived 300 year radiation is waste from the reactors. Thorium is three times more abundant than uranium and it only has to have a fraction of the purity of our Uranium reactors. All of which could be mined in the US.
Tennex
1.5 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2012
If we build 10,800 lithium LFTR reactors

There are still many technological problems with it http://www.torium...4670.pdf The proposed salt mixture FLiBe, contains large amounts of beryllium, an expensive and poisonous element, it releases hydrogen fluoride with contact in water and only few materials can handle it safely. http://theenergyc...chnology
hikenboot
not rated yet Apr 09, 2012
all workable problems...
From your article postings Tennex:
" no one single killer problem has yet popped up. This most likely means that development of various MSR designs including LFTRs will not involve serious development challenges, and we can be reasonably but not entirely certain that serious problems will not impede MSR/LFTR developmental progress.
Thus it can be assorted with reasonable certainty that the LFTR offers a potential long term solution to human energy needs, that is consistent with a high energy lifestyle, and which will not create the sort of safety, waste, proliferation and capitol cost problems associated with LWR power technology."

rubberman
3 / 5 (2) Apr 10, 2012
A quick comment on fission based energy. There is a band wagon for thorium and I understand why. I do have one benefit for going the direction of a fast neutron reactor though, and that is we have all this nuclear waste sitting around already that could power them for the next several thousand years without the need to start new giant open pit mines for the thorium. We would be getting rid of something we already want to get rid of.


Now that's Sane science!!
kochevnik
3 / 5 (2) Apr 10, 2012
@wwqq There exists no other power source with such an enviable safety record, even assuming LNT.
Hmm nuke plant south of me was shut down after that release of radioactive steam and a rusting dome lid which will pop off in the event of any major breech, which was deemed to be likely given the steam tubes were buckling AND bundled together.
@wwqq Germany has a dozen or so fossil fuel Chernobyls per year; it's not an accident, no disaster zones are declared and nobody is evacuated; people just die.
I'm trying to grasp WTF your writing about, but you're too vague and I'm not psychic.
hikenboot
5 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2012
I wish people would not assume that high pressure vessels are necessary in order to have a nuclear reaction. In the case of LFTR reactors they are not necessary which is why we don't need to levels of expensive containment containers and a whole bunch of other things to protect the environment from the dangers. It is a lot more stable technology, and it don't go BOOM..it can't!!!!

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