This morning I attended a “Raw Materials” breakfast in Brussels, expecting bauxite and crude oil — although we got the usual croissants and coffee. The briefing dealt with “Rare Earths“, a seemingly arcane subject, but one that lies at the heart of much “green technology”, including, especially, the magnets you find in both electric vehicles and wind turbines.
I was astonished to learn that large wind turbines contain around 600 kgs of rare earths per megawatt — so a 2 MW turbine has over a ton. (How long till the metal thieves notice the opportunity, I wonder?).
Two problems. First of all, the Chinese seem to have a virtual monopoly on these vital materials. They produce 99% of the world supply. Mines in other parts of the world have been closed down. And while frantic research is underway to find substitute materials, or other technologies avoiding the rare earths, right now they’re vital to Western economies. And while the materials seem to exist in a number of countries, they seem curiously reluctant to exploit them. A significant rare earth mine in California, the Mountain Pass Mine, is currently out of production.
Second problem: the process of extraction, at least as practised in China, causes heavy pollution, health issues and degradation of the environment over significant areas. The picture above tells the story. Again, work is underway to find cleaner extraction technologies, but that too takes time.
What a wonderful dilemma for the green campaigners. They’re desperate for wind farms and electric vehicles, which they vainly imagine will save the planet from CO2 emissions and climate change, yet a key component is causing environmental devastation in China.
I mischievously asked in the meeting whether other countries had abandoned the extraction of rare earths because they preferred to leave the pollution in China, rather than (say) California. I also suggested that this environmental dilemma was an excellent reason to abandon our misplaced commitment to wind power. Neither suggestion was well received.