Clean Tech — Dirty Mining

A toxic tailings pond in China

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.

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14 Responses to Clean Tech — Dirty Mining

  1. Rich Tee says:

    It is a wondeful dilemma. These metals are also essential in personal computers, iPhones and iPads, the essential tools of the modern eco-warrior.

    My understanding is that rare earth metals are generally not found in quantities that make mining economical, which is why they are called “rare” earth metals despite not being particularly rare overall.

  2. I very much admire your bravery in asking those Emperor’s clothes type of questions.
    But not as much as I admire your uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time.
    What worries me, actually, is that I am not sure I trust the Communist Maoists who seem to be taking over the world.

  3. China realised the importance and scarcity of rare earth long before others and has been busily collecting main sources over years; latterly followed by Germany; as usual our leaders are only just awakening to importance and world scarcity

  4. christensen411 says:

    Excellent post! Here in the US, we have been using the word sWINDle to depict the wind scam. “sWINDle: not clean, not green, not cheap”

    I would love a reference for the “600 kgs of rare earths per megawatt” as mentioned above?? I’ve seen one reference at 1300 lbs per MW; but for the most part, I always see 2000 pounds per MW referenced.

    Here’s the article which says 1300 pounds per MW:

    http://www.terramagnetica.com/2009/08/03/how-does-using-permanent-magnets-make-wind-turbines-more-reliable/

    These articles say 2000 pounds per MW:

    http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/rareearth.pdf
    http://climateerinvest.blogspot.com/2009/05/wind-why-rare-earth-metals-matter.html

    Keep up the GREAT work!

  5. Billothewisp says:

    The existing fleet of turbines generally do not use the Neodymium direct (or near direct) drive generators. The existing fleet use highly complex and spectacularly unreliable gearboxes to crank up the rpm to around 1500 rpm to drive doubly wound induction generators. The use of Neodymium is to try and get over a hushed up generic gearbox reliability problem which affects almost all current large turbines. This entails a complete gearbox rebuild every 7 years or so..

    Whether this use of (as you correctly say 600-700Kgs) of rare earth metals will improve reliability is open to debate. This issue was explored in June issue 2010 of the magasine of the Society of Tribology and Lubrication Engineers on this link
    http://www.stle.org/assets/news/document/Cover_Story_06-10.pdf

    I have a section on my blog where I spend far too much time shooting down the propaganda and absurdities of wind power. I know from experience how time consuming it can be to cut through all the guff from the likes of RenewablesUK so It may be of help to you.
    Keep up the good work!
    Regards
    Billothewisp

  6. Lt. Columbo says:

    Maoism may not be the most appropriate meme. Mao, for all his many faults did write in his “Little Red Book”, among the expected analogies and metaphors, the following words of wisdom….

    in chapter 23 .. on investigation and Study
    “it is necessary to investigate both the facts and the
    history of a problem in order to study and understand it.”

    and in chapter 24 .. on Correcting Mistaken Ideas
    “arrogance, lack of achievement after a prosperous period,
    selfishness, shirking work, and liberalism, are all evils to be
    avoided .. Liberalism is taken to mean that one may avoid
    conflict or work in order to be more comfortable for the
    moment, while the problem continues to grow.”

    and in chapter 33 .. on Study
    “it is the responsibility of all to cultivate themselves,
    and .. it is also necessary for the people to turn their
    attention to contemporary problems, along empirical lines”

    So then whilst Mao was admittedly a rampant
    Marxist-Leninist Communist, and promoted those
    “ideals” as he saw them, he would never have condoned
    the sort of farce which masquerades for modern western
    “scientific research”, when it came to the bogus “scare”
    of Man-Made Global Warming.

    Far worse than anything that Mao could have dreamt up,
    the World is endangered, not by Communism, but alas
    instead it is the terrible spectre of predictions that were
    made by the outgoing US President Eisenhower, when
    he warned of the Military-Industrial Complex, and the
    Bureaucratic and Scientific Elites, which were ….
    “gravely to be regarded”.

    Yes those above groups, and I include rogue bankers,
    may use a kind of pseudo-neo-communistic declaration
    or pronunciamento, as a diversion, and to ally themselves
    with, or in reality subvert the various “green” movements.
    However in reality they follow a kind of Creed in which
    they may do or say any bad thing, so long as in their own
    view this will lead to a good end. So they may pretend to
    be “Communists” or “Liberals” or indeed anything they
    choose, just so long as it leads to the ends as were
    declared in the document UN Agenda 21.

    All Hail the Scientific Elites,
    All Hail the Bureaucratic Elites,
    All Hail Club of Buda-Pest,
    All Hail Club of Madrid,
    All Hail Club of Rome,
    All Hail the World Bank,
    All Hail The EU,
    All Hail The UN.

    Wake Up You People !!!!!!!
    To UN AGENDA 21 !!!!!!!

  7. maureen gannon says:

    Maybe certain people with influence have many fingers in the wind farm trough, and thats why they allow the Chinese to discard their people.Much like they our rulers are discarding the people of southern europe.

  8. Norfolk Dumpling says:

    Continuous adverse publicity of this type for aero-generator and electric vehicle essential magnetic equipment will help destroy the myth and scam of wind power generation, hopefully before the covert financial subsidies can finally destroy our economy.
    Good of you, Roger.

  9. Brian Thorogood says:

    So other generating systems (coal, gas, oil, nuclear) don’t use the same magnets then? Methinks you are being a tad disingenuous.

    • Lt. Columbo says:

      That’s correct, such conventional sources of generating power as you mention, DO NOT use the “same magnets” (as wind turbines). The problem with wind turbines is their very intermittancy of use, where they may remain idle for days, or even weeks on end, when there is no wind. This necessitates the use of permanent magnets.

      In a conventional steam turbine generator set, the magnetic field coils are “self-excited”. A portion of the output from the alternator is fed into the field coils to produce the magnetic feild necessary for operation. When the generator starts, some small magnetivity is retained in the iron core of the field magnets, and this is enough to start the process usually. However this magnetivity decays rapidly over a few days.

      Large scale generator sets using field coil electro-magnets are described in this PDF document from General Electric, originally published in 1975, though nothing much has changed since then.

      http://site.ge-energy.com/prod_serv/products/tech_docs/en/downloads/GER3003.pdf

  10. c golly gee says:

    There is a global problem with the availability and processing of rare earth metals. It is important to be aware that a great many modern and essential electrical devices have components requiring rare earth metals, to pick out wind turbines alone, as here, is misleading, immature and irresponsible, like the daily mail! All forms of power generation are dependant in some way, on rare earths, making their recovery, recycling and re-use extremely important.

  11. Susie says:

    Thank you Roger for drawing attention to this. Electric and hybrid cars such as the Prius (or ‘Pious’ as we call it) use these minerals as well as turbines.

    When history is written, renewable ‘green’ technology will be viewed as one of the greatest environmental crimes ever committed. Keep battling away for us and thank you for all you do.

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