Rare earth elements (REE) are chemical elements which can be found in the lanthanoids Group ( 6) in the periodic table ( inclusive scandium en yttrium). These elements occur in the earth’s crust ( as do urnanium and thorium) and can be reclaimed. This reclamation isn’t easy because thes elements are dispersed in the crust which is why they are called “rare” earth elements.
Recently a list of endangered elements was published. This list included some of the REE’s such as neodymium(Nd) and dysprosium(Dy). These elements are used to make wind-turbines work. Nd is used to produce permanent magnets. These are the strongest permanent magnets known to man.
They are used in hard disks for computers , cell phones, hybrid cars… Around one tone of REE based permanent magnets is needed to provide each MW of wind turbine power.
Other REE’s like Dy are described as miracle ingredients for green energy , small quantities are needed to produce magnets . Magnets made of Dy are about 1/10 of the weight of a Nd magnet. However dysprosium is harder to extract from the ground which makes it less desirable.
So how serious is the fact that these elements are endangered? Theoretically we could go a long time with the amount that’s left. But! China is at the moment dominator of the REE production(97% of the produced REE) , it’s also the publisher of the list of endangered elements. So China’s hegemony for its own future energy projects, will lead to a shortage these elements for the rest of the world. At the end of 2010 China announced that the first round of export quota’s will be around 14500 tonne, which is 35% less than last year.
Recent demand for REE’s has grown , in a couple of years the demand for REE is expected to exceed 40000 tonnes annually . Apparently the production of REE should increase to 5 times the amount to meet with the demand for wind-turbine production. With China sabotaging the export it is very unlikely that the quota’s will be satisfied. Unless! New sources are developed. The tricky part here is that the production of REE’s has to be closely supervised because of damage it can cost to the environment. A lot of production houses are being shut down because of the high pollution they produce.
An oil peak may already be with us, a coal peak is expected in 10 to 15 years, what happens if the source of green energy is finite as well? A lot of bloggers are pleading for a circular economy. Recycling must be key in these times. But will this be enough ?
The main step that has to be taken now is the exploitation of REE sources. Only 37% of the existing sources are in Chinese hands so before certain parties are demanding for more green energy, they should think about the key elements needed for the maintenance of this green energy.