Jul 25 2015

Rare Earth: The Unsustainable Future of Renewable Energy

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In my first post, I discussed the future of lithium and it’s role as a catalyst towards the changing global power dynamic surrounding renewable energy. In this post, I hope to continue this trend in discussing the role of rare earth metals in the renewable energy industry and how they may serve as a limiting factor in our quest towards a fully sustainable future.

Rare Earth Elements: What Are They?

Rare earth elements are a crucial component of many green technologies, from the drivetrains of electric vehicles and hybrids to the non-abrasive gearboxes in modern wind turbines. Rare earth elements are actually a group of seventeen elements, numbers 57-71 on the periodic table, that have a set of unique magnetic, electric, and optical properties (Namibia Rare Earths 2015). Contrary to popular belief, as well as their namesake, rare earth elements actually aren’t all that rare. These elements are only called rare because they are found in scattered deposits around the planet, as opposed to the vast, concentrated reserves of other metals and fuels such as oil and natural gas (Namibia Rare Earths 2015). In total, there is an estimated 110 million metric tons of rare earth reserves in the world (Namibia Rare Earths 2015). Of the world’s rare earth deposits 55 million metric tons or exactly half of the world’s resources are located in China (Business Insider 2011). Russia and the former soviet states comes in second with 19 percent of the world’s rare earth supply, followed closely by the United States with 17 percent (Business Insider). Other than these three regions, however, the remainder of the world’s rare earths are scattered in countries such as India, Australia, South Africa, and Brazil (Business Insider 2011).

Environmental and Health Hazards of Mining Rare Earths

Although they contain half of the world’s rare earth reserves, China still controls a disproportionately large share of the global rare earth trade. The reason for this is lax environmental regulation on the part of the Chinese government (Ives 2013). China can produce rare earth minerals three times cheaper than its international competitors due to nearly non-existent environmental standards related to waste disposal from mining rare earths (Ives 2013). This economic profit, however, is not without environmental consequence: according to China’s State Council, half a century of rare earth mining has led to “damaged surface vegetation, soil erosion, pollution, acidification, and reduced food output” (Ives 2013). The Council also reported that wastewater from the plants, which is stored in large, stagnant ponds contained a “high concentration of radioactive residues” (Ives 2013). At China’s largest rare earths mining project, Bayan- Obo, there is an eleven square kilometer waste pond filled with toxic sludge that contains elevated levels of thorium, a known carcinogen (Ives 2013). These environmental and health hazards are not limited to China. The Lynas corporation is an Australian mining and refining company specializing in rare earths and in 2013 they opened a processing facility on Malaysia’s east coast only twelve miles from Kuantan, a city with a population of 600,000 (Ives 2013). The plant is receiving strong opposition from many grassroots organizations who claim that the facility is contributing to a various environmental and health problems in the region. A recent study by the Institute for Applied Ecology found that the plant was disposing of wastewater through an open channel rather than a closed pipeline (Ives 2013). In addition, the Institute found that the company refused to disclose the chemical mixture used in refining the rare earths and that the temporary waste storage facility built by the company would cause radioactive leakage “under normal operating conditions” (Ives 2013). The grassroots organizers also point to the case of an $100 million cleanup of a Mitsubishi Chemical plant that closed in 1992 after it was discovered that thorium contamination from the plant’s refining of rare earths lead to increased leukemia and pancreatic cancer rates in the inhabitants of nearby villages (Ives 2013). The opposition also claims this is just another example of a developed, western corporation passing the environmental bill off to a developing nation while their executives make a hefty profit with little to no ecological impact. On the other hand, Lynas, says that they plan to dilute any thorium produced by mixing it with lime until it is below accepted international concentrations for radioactive materials (Ives 2013). The problem, however, is that rare earth projects are often independently audited, which means that regulators are often in the pockets of the company via bribes or the government via a pink slip if they don’t pass companies who break environmental regulations (Ives 2013). As of 2015, the Lynas plant remains fully operational but as several cases wind their way through the Malaysian courts, the future is far from certain.

Sources:

“High Demand for Rare Earths.” Market Demand for Rare Earths: Namibia Rare Earths Inc. Namibia Rare Earths, n.d. Web. 22 July 2015.

Verrastro, Frank A. “The Geopolitics of Energy.” The Geopolitics of Energy. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Oct. 2010. Web. 22 July 2015.

Ives, Mike. “Boom in Mining Rare Earths Poses Mounting Toxic Risks.” Yale Environment 360. Yale University, 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 22 July 2015.

Jones, Nicola. “A Scarcity of Rare Metals Is Hindering Green Technologies.”Yale Environment 360. Yale University, 18 Nov. 2013. Web. 22 July 2015.

 

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