Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rare Problem, Rare Opportunity

Because of this trip, I'm now paying rapt attention to news stories I might have skimmed in the past. Like the story today, in the New York Times: "U.S. Vulnerable to Rare Earth Shortages." China is the world's leading producer of rare earth minerals, and the nation is moving to limit exports.

Why should I care?

Because our electric motor--the one that lets Dragonfly run with the sun--uses several kinds of rare earth.

Like the name says, "rare earth" minerals are rare (in contrast to minerals that are common, such as iron or copper).  Our electric motor, a "permanent magnet motor," uses three kinds of rare earth in its construction: neodymium, terbium, and dysprosium.  (Note to public radio geeks:  These days neodymium is also used in microphones, loudspeakers, and headphones. The silvery metal sells for $92 a kilo.)

Many other "green technologies" currently rely on rare earths.  A single Toyota Prius uses more than two pounds of neodymium--and the company expects to sell 180,000 Priuses this year. That's rather a lot of a rare product.

Wind turbines also require rare earths.  So do compact fluorescent light bulbs.

China's got the stuff we need.  China knows we need and want it.  China has lower labor costs, and fewer environmental regulations, than the United States.  It ain't easy (or cheap) being green.

So what's a nation to do?

America has a history as a country full of restless, inventive entrepreneurs.  And sure enough, some of them are working on new green technologies--including products that don't require rare earth minerals.

Could we do more? Will provisions in the current tax bill  and the national budget support this kind of radical innovation?

Your thoughts?


  1. Could we do more? Sure, we should. Will our current federal government encourage and promote innovation and make it possible for entrepreneurs to flourish? Highly doubtful considering who we just elected to "lead" us.

  2. A big reason that most rare earth metals come from China these days is not that China has the biggest deposits, but because when China started exporting rare earth metals in the 1980s, their prices were so low that they drove rare earth mining operations in other places on the globe out of business.

    Now that the Chinese supplies are being diverted for internal use, the first thing that we're seeing is abandoned mining operations elsewhere on the planet (ex: The Mountain Pass mine in California; http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/22/business/energy-environment/22rare.html) start to resume production because prices have increased enough for them to be competitive again.

    Hopefully somebody out there is also putting some serious thought into establishing domestic programs for recycling rare earth metals; it's already being done by Japanese companies, but a lot of their recycling operations are located in countries like Vietnam where labor costs are low and environmental protection measures are weak.

    You're absolutely right that the ideal solution would be to move away from designs that require the use of rare-earth metals, but it probably won't happen until motors, batteries and bulbs can either a) are cheaper to make without the use of large amounts of rare earth metals or b) some sort of federal intervention makes the use of rare earth metals in products unfeasible in the united states, in the same way that the production of vaseline glass and uranotype photoprints ended in the United States after the federal government confiscated civilian uranium supplies for strategic reasons in the 1940s; by the time uranium was available for civilian use again in the 1950s, better products were already on the market.