Tuesday, August 25, 2015
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Welcome to Matt Ridley's Blog
Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Rare earths versus the Earth

Another environmental cost of wind turbines

Tim Worstall has an enlightening essay on his specialist subject, rare earths.

Rare-earth minerals are the 15 elements in that funny box at the bottom of the periodic table -- known as lanthanides -- plus two others. About 95 percent of global production takes place in China, largely at one huge mining complex in Inner Mongolia. The lanthanides are essential to much of modern electronics and high-tech equipment of various kinds. The magnets in windmills and iPod headphones rely on neodymium. Lutetium crystals make MRI machines work; terbium goes into compact fluorescent bulbs; scandium is essential for halogen lights; lanthanum powers the batteries for the Toyota Prius. For some of these products, alternative materials are available (moving to a non-rare-earth technology would make those cute little white earbuds about the size of a Coke can, though). For others, there simply isn't a viable substitute.

In other words, those vast wind turbines depend on surface mining just as much as the fossil fuel industry does.

Two important facts about rare earths help explain why: They're not earths, and they're not rare. China has reached its dominant supplier position through good old-fashioned industrial aggression, not innate geographical superiority. Cheap labor, little environmental scrutiny, and a willingness to sell at low cost have made other producers give up. For competitors, like the owners of Mountain Pass, a California mine that shut down in 2002 partly due to the China factor, that has been a daunting combination. For the rest of us, it has been fantastic: Affordable rare earths have helped power the information-technology revolution, driving down the cost of everything from hybrid cars to smart bombs.

But out of sight is out of mind. The renewable energy industry can pretend it is green by hiding this process away in China:

Rare earths aren't found in nature as  separate elements; they need to be extracted from each other, a process that involves thousands (really, thousands) of iterations of boiling the ores in strong acids. There is also almost always thorium, a lightly radioactive metal, in the same ores, and it has to be disposed of. (Thorium leaking into the California desert was a more serious problem at Mountain Pass than low prices.) So ramping up production would mean that Western countries would need to tolerate a level of pollution they've been all too happy to outsource to China.