Clean Tech No Hostage to Rare Earth Shortages

By Jonathan Marshall

Home prices are still dropping across much of the country, but the cost of lighting them with compact fluorescent bulbs jumped about 37 percent over the first nine months of this year.

Molycorp Mine

Molycorp mines rare earth elements in California. (Photo courtesy of Molycorp, Inc.)

The cause of this huge increase? A worldwide shortage of the rare earth element europium, due to sales cuts by China. China produces nearly all of the world’s rare earth materials—17 elements, from lanthanum to yttrium, that are as essential to the electronics, energy, telecommunications and defense industries as they are hard to pronounce.

China’s production cuts, reported last month, have many analysts crying doom.

“Critical minerals ignite geopolitical storm,” reads the headline of a news release issued a few days ago by the Geological Society of America.

“The clean energy economy of the future hinges on a lot of things,” it starts, “chief among them the availability of the scores of rare earth minerals and other elements used to make everything from photovoltaic panels and cell phone displays to the permanent magnets in cutting edge new wind generators. And right out of the gate trouble is brewing over projected growth in demand for these minerals and the security of their supplies.”

A new Pentagon report to Congress on the status of U.S. industrial capabilities declared it “essential” that a “stable, non-Chinese” source of these minerals be established to protect the United States from the whims of Chinese export policy.

And in Congress, legislators have introduced nine bills to “address supply disruptions of rare earths and other important mineral commodities,” according to Kathleen Benedetto of the House Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee.

Fortunately, creative entrepreneurs are quickly finding ways to prevent these elemental supply shortages from starving the clean tech sector—or to national defense.

On the one hand, mining companies are finding new supplies all the time. California-based Molycorp Inc., the only active U.S. producer of rare earth metals, announced promising new deposits in Southern California, which could be tapped within a year.

In Alaska, geologists report finding 70 promising deposits of the materials. And—much farther afield—experts from the U.S. Geological Survey have mapped deposits of at least a million metric tons of these elements in southern Afghanistan.

Equally promising, inventors are finding ways to substitute more common materials for rare earth metals in vital applications. The Department of Energy has earmarked up to $30 million on cutting-edge research to this end.

For example, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is developing a way to use composite materials containing manganese to form powerful magnets for wind turbines and electric vehicle motors.

Substitutes for rare earth metals in permanent magnets are also being developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Tesla Motors already uses an alternative design in its Roadster electric vehicle.

So clean-tech developers need not lose too much sleep over this latest crisis. Good old Yankee ingenuity—through both geology and materials science—holds every promise of ensuring that rare earth metals rarely become a problem.

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