Tue May 5th, 2009 at 07:54:56 AM EST
[This was originally written to be a comment under Jérôme's diary The cost of wind, the price of wind, the value of wind, but due to its length, I am posting it as a diary.]
An article in the May issue of The Atlantic makes the case that the mineral neodymium -- "necessary for the lightweight permanent magnets that make Prius motors zoom and for the generators that give wind turbines their electrical buzz" -- may become a bottleneck on wind turbine production. And since "in 2006, nearly all of the world's roughly 137,000-ton supply of rare-earth oxides came from China", according to Irving Mintzer, "a senior adviser to the Potomac Energy Fund who sees shortages stifling clean-tech industry":
"If we don't think this through, we could be trading a troubling dependence on Middle Eastern oil for a troubling dependence on Chinese neodymium."
But I haven't been able to find much about this issue on the web.
Promoted by Nomad
On March 9, an "industry analyst" named Jack Lifton -- referred to in the Atlantic article as by no stretch your standard environmental activist ("I don't give a rat's ass about global warming") -- wrote on the Gerson Lehrman Group website that:
If wind powered turbines are to be used to generate electricity in the USA, and if those turbines are to use the lightest weight most efficient electric generators then each megawatt of capacity will require one tone of neodymium.
There is no significant neodymium production surplus.
Therefore the neodymium would have to be obtained from new production and such production would have to be over and above the total projected demand for 2014 already estimated at 38,000 metric tons, 50% greater than today's production and demand.
The only possible sources for this extra production would be:
1. Lynas Corp (Mt. Weld, Australia),
2. Arafura, Ltd (Nolan's Bore, Australia)
3. Molycorp (Mountain Pass, california)
4. Great Western Minerals Group, Ltd. (Hoidas Lake, saskatchewan, Canada),
5. Avalon Rare Metals (Thor Lake, Northwest Territories, Canada), or
6. Thorium Energy, inc. (Lemhi Pass, Idaho).
Not a single one of the above mining ventures has yet produced a single gram of commercial rare earth metal, although numbers 1 and 2 above are claimed to be 'ready to go," and 3 above was until 2000 a producing mine, which in 1994, for example, was the world's largest single point rare earth mining and refining operation with an annual total production of 20,000 metric tons.
There is no point in getting excited about building the structural components for wind power electricity generation in Michigan or anywhere else if the turbine generators cannot be built due to natural resource limitations.
Perhaps the brilliant minds of Wall Street and Washington should revisit their knee-jerk opposition to American mining, before they make plans for renewable energy sources.
Apparently, this was not the first time he has written about neodymium, as earlier on January 26 Nuclear Green Revolution wrote that:
I have been unable to find independent verification of Lifton's claim that one ton of neodymium or so is required for every MW of wind generating capacity.
and in the comments to the post, "donb" writes in response to another comment:
Jim Baerg said
Something that is unclear from this post is to what extent a shortage of neodymium would affect other sources of electricity.
Wind turbine designers like to use neodymium permanent magnets (of fixed strength) because the generators are relatively small (a few MW compared to over 1000 MW in some large nuke plants) and need to be light weight to reduce demands on the tower structure.
For a ground-based power plant, heavier but much less expensive steel and copper are used to make electromagnets that have controllable strength.
There are additional details. <...>
I won't even get into the uncontrollable output power of wind turbines.
Irving Mintzer, quoted above from the Atlantic article also noted in an NPR interview, on November 21, 2008 that in addition to being dependent on "not so friendly parts of the world" (i.e. "the northeast Sangha [?] region of the Congo, the site of a ten year Civil War that's killed about five and half million people, on the Tibetan plateau in China, and parts of eastern Siberia") for lithium and cobalt for electric car batteries, we may also become dependent on China for neodymium:
Richard Harris [NPR Reporter]: ... A cautionary tale comes from the story of the element neodymium, which is used in those incredibly useful rare earth magnets.
Irving Mintzer: You'll find them in virtually every pair of ear-plugs attached to a teenager in the United States that will allow iPods to walk down our streets.
Richard Harris [NPR Reporter]: Neodymium is also important in hybrid automobiles. Not in the batteries, but in the engines and braking systems.
Now, 95% of neodymium comes from China, and last year, demand within China shot way up.
Irving Mintzer: So the Chinese cut off exports, which caused a modest amount of indigestion in countries like Japan and the United States where auto production of hybrid vehicles was looking increasingly promising.
Richard Harris [NPR Reporter]: Mintzer says the lesson here is not that we should abandon lithium batteries, but that we need to be better prepared to switch to alternatives if the need arises. And unfortunately, the federal government and industry has [sic] focused a huge percentage of battery research solely on lithium-ion technology.
Irving Mintzer: My suggestion is that we give up our desire to pick a single winner in the battery field and begin to look at what the range of possibilities are [sic].
Richard Harris [NPR Reporter]: Patrick Moseley is president of the Advanced Lead-Acid Battery Consortium. <...> And Moseley says lithium isn't the only game in town. They've developed a lead battery that will work in a hybrid car and is $700-800 cheaper than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in hybrids today. <...>
But lead probably won't work in plug-in electric cars. Those cars need a lot more batteries than hybrids, and lead is, well, heavy as lead. So Moseley says some companies are at least poking around with some more out-there technologies, like zinc-air, sodium nickel chloride, and other exotic chemistries.
Moseley: I think it's probably a wise government that pursues more than one line of research.
Richard Harris [NPR Reporter]: The question now is whether that new technology will be available for fast enough, if the lithium-ion juggernaut runs into some sort of trouble.
And so should we also be as concerned about the supply of neodymium? Are there alternatives to it? Or is there enough outside of China to sustain a continued expansion of industry that is dependent on neodymium?