What everyone needs to know about supposed eco-friendly technology, much of which is horribly damaging to the environment.
In Washington, Congress is fretting about the United States military’s dependence on Chinese rare earths, and has just ordered a study of potential alternatives.
Here in Guyun Village, a small community in southeastern China fringed by lush bamboo groves and banana trees, the environmental damage can be seen in the red-brown scars of barren clay that run down narrow valleys and the dead lands below, where emerald rice fields once grew.
Miners scrape off the topsoil and shovel golden-flecked clay into dirt pits, using acids to extract the rare earths. The acids ultimately wash into streams and rivers, destroying rice paddies and fish farms and tainting water supplies.There are 17 rare-earth elements — some of which, despite the name, are not particularly rare — but two heavy rare earths, dysprosium and terbium, are in especially short supply, mainly because they have emerged as the miracle ingredients of green energy products. Tiny quantities of dysprosium can make magnets in electric motors lighter by 90 percent, while terbium can help cut the electricity usage of lights by 80 percent. Dysprosium prices have climbed nearly sevenfold since 2003, to $53 a pound. Terbium prices quadrupled from 2003 to 2008, peaking at $407 a pound, before slumping in the global economic crisis to $205 a pound.
The biggest user of heavy rare earths in the years ahead could be large wind turbines, which need much lighter magnets for the five-ton generators at the top of ever-taller towers. Vestas, a Danish company that has become the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturer, said that prototypes for its next generation used dysprosium, and that the company was studying the sustainability of the supply. Goldwind, the biggest Chinese turbine maker, has switched from conventional magnets to rare-earth magnets.
Executives in the $1.3 billion rare-earths mining industry say that less environmentally damaging mining is needed, given the importance of their product for green energy technologies. Developers hope to open mines in Canada, South Africa and Australia, but all are years from large-scale production and will produce sizable quantities of light rare earths. Their output of heavy rare earths will most likely be snapped up to meet rising demand from the wind turbine industry.