Rare earths and wind turbines

If the global wind farm industry were to move to direct-drive technology in the future and require more permanent magnets, the technological capability to do without them would still exist. These elements, unpronounceable-ium’s such as dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium, are essential to a wide range of green energy technologies ranging from wind turbines to electric vehicles. (According to “Mr. Rare Earth,” Ames Laboratory senior metallurgist Karl Gschneider Jr., one new-generation windmill capable of spinning up to three megawatts of electricity requires 1,500 lbs of neodymium.) They’re also used in mobile phones, laptops and military applications like night-vision goggles.

One of their primary uses is in permanent magnets, the strongest of which are made from a combination of neodymium, iron and boron. They have a much greater pull than the ones currently holding your refrigerator door shut tight. In fact, permanent magnets amount to over a $4 billion global industry.

Researchers at the Ames Laboratory recently discovered a new way to make those magnets in cheaper and greener fashion, one that reduces costs while reducing waste. And last month, Ames Lab signed a cooperative research and development agreement with Molycorp Inc., the Western hemisphere’s only producer of rare-earth oxides. The new effort will be focused on developing new ways to build better magnets, but it may also reenergize applied rare-earth research in the U.S. (For more information on building better magnets, see Nature’s “The Pull of Stronger Magnets,”)

Critical shortfalls in these elements will impact green technologies (e.g., electric vehicles, wind energy). The United States Magnetic Materials Association (“USMMA”), a trade association dedicated to restoring a competitive, secure, end-to-end rare earth supply chain to support the domestic manufacturing of rare earth permanent magnets, today released a “Myth-Fact” paper to clarify key points relevant to the successful re-introduction of a “mine-to-magnets” strategy. This paper is necessary to provide accurate information in response to news and academic reports, “think tank” positions, U.S. Government generalizations, and promotional activities by some private sector entities, which have oversimplified or downplayed the seriousness of the rare earth crisis.

This Myth-Fact paper lays out 7 common assumptions about the rare earth supply chain, determines whether these assumptions are grounded in reality, and provides accurate quantitative and policy support for the truth of the situation. In particular, the paper highlights that:

“Rare earths” are rare due to access issues. While rare earth elements are abundant in the earth’s crust, the ability to locate economically viable concentrations is indeed rare;

China is an unreliable supplier of rare earth materials on the global marketplace. China, which produces more than 95 percent of all rare earth oxides and nearly 100% of rare earth metals for world consumption, has dramatically reduced exports, decreased production, increased taxes, and embargoed trading partners. Anticipating further price increases, many Chinese suppliers have proven reluctant to quote pricing and availability to consumers;

Extraction is not simple and U.S. companies cannot quickly develop extraction capabilities. In fact, processing rare earth elements is much more complicated and costly than processing other ores. The multi-step process can cost more than $500 million per location and take up to 10 years for mine development and permitting;

Increasing global demand will outstrip supply of key rare earths, such as neodymium, dysprosium, europium, terbium, and yttrium. Critical shortfalls in these elements will impact green technologies (e.g., hybrid electric cars, wind turbines), digitized and miniaturized electronic goods (e.g., mobile phones), and defense applications (e.g., missiles, radars, avionics). To address the most critical national security aspect of this looming crisis, the U.S. Government can establish a stockpile of neodymium iron boron and dysprosium iron alloys, as called for in H.R. 1388, the Rare Earths Supply-Chain Technology and Resources Transformation Act of 2011 (or RESTART Act), introduced by Representative Mike Coffman (CO-6) in April 2011;

Domestic production capabilities are limited or nonexistent. The United States produces limited rare earth oxides and alloys and no rare earth metals and has one supplier of samarium cobalt magnets and no suppliers of neodymium iron boron magnets. It recommends robust activity in key areas to support a “manufacturing first” approach that supports mining of rare earth ores domestically and in cooperation with ally nations and promotes U.S. capabilities on the manufacturing end of the supply chain. Such an approach would include stockpiling value-added materials to support defense requirements and emphasis on re-starting a reliable, domestic magnet manufacturing capability;

Years of research into substitutes have produced no viable alternatives to rare earth materials. U.S. national security will continue to rely on rare earth metals, alloys, and magnets in the foreseeable future. Defense legacy systems alone will require access to rare earths for decades; and

No large-scale reuse or recycling programs are ongoing. While necessary research and development – led in large part by Japanese companies – is underway, U.S. companies have not yet participated in these efforts in a meaningful way.
Enercon wind power converters (WECs) generate electricity in an environmentally friendly way without the use of the controversial element, neodymium. Enercon wind energy converters (WECs) generate electricity in an environmentally friendly way without the use of the controversial element, neodymium. The gearless WEC design on which all WEC types – from the E-33/330 kW to the E-126/7.5 MW – are based includes a separately excited annular generator. The magnetic fields required by the generator to produce electricity are created electrically. By design, and unlike the majority of competing products, ENERCON WECs do without permanent magnets whose production requires neodymium.

Neodymium has made the headlines recently because its extraction partly involves significant environmental damage. China, where neodymium-containing rocks are quarried in mines, is the main supplier of this so-called rare earth element. According to investigations by Germany’s NDR TV station, separation of neodymium from mined rocks results in toxic waste products (Menschen und Schlagzeilen and Panorama television magazines aired on 27 and 28 April).

In addition, radioactive uranium and thorium are released by the mining process. These substances find their way into the ground water, heavily contaminating plant and animal life. They are seen as harmful to humans. According to the reports, part of the locals at the neodymium production sites in Baotou in northern China are already seriously ill.

Enercon feels that these environmental and health aspects support its choice of WEC design. “We are a high-tech company that sets great store by environmental protection,” says ENERCON Managing Director Hans-Dieter Kettwig. “Our choice to rely on separately excited generators was the right one, not only from a technological but also from an environmental point of view.” According to Kettwig, renewable energies need to be viewed in their entirety in order to offer a convincing alternative. Producing clean energy is one thing; however, sustainability in production is just as important.