Saturday, January 1, 2011

things we could do about scarcity of rare earths

In 2009, oil industry folks warned us that our growing dependency on China for
rare earth elements could be just as serious as our growing dependency on OPEC for oil. What's more, they asserted that we can't afford to become independent of oil now, because we would need more rare earths to do that. The US government recently appointed a commission to study the problem, to route more money to materials science, and to support one of the many big new mines that some folks want to start up. But certain key details have been missed by all those folks "at 300,000 feet"...

Here is a posting for folks at the cutting edge of reality here -- with some
important news for wind and electric cars as well:


The issue of US dependence on a dwindling supply of rare earths provided by China
is still a significant concern, even though the trends are far less frightening (in my view) than
those with oil import dependency.

Last night, at a New Years' celebration... Dave Goldstein pointed out that
there are many electric motors in EXISTING cars which rely on rare earths. Here I won't comment on
that, or on other rare earths issues. (But below this, I do respond to some questions about the broader challenge...)
Here I'll focus on a narrower question, which has perhaps been neglected in the world at 300,000 feet:

-- Does rare earth shortage threaten the possibility of transition to a sustainable global energy situation,
and if so, what can we do about it in the energy sector? There is some new information on this.

Opponents of sustainable energy have cited three major issues:

1. The use of rare earths in permanent magnet (PM) wind turbines, which many see as the next generation
of wind, mainly for offshore wind farms.

2. The use of rare earths in the big permanent magnet (PM) motors which actually move the car,
in hybrid and electric vehicles. The "traction motors".

3. The use of rare earths in batteries.

For 1 and 2 in general, it's important to remember that rare earths are being used to produce powerful MAGNETS.
From high school science -- there are basically two kinds of magnets, permanent magnets (PM) and induction magnets (IM).
We don't need rare earths to produce powerful induction magnets, only to produce permanent magnets.
If we can do things with induction magnets, we don't need rare earths for those things.

In the case of wind -- most wind turbines in the US are "Doubly Fed Induction Generators" (DFIG).
I am certainly NOT a wind researcher myself, but a simple google on "DFIG" seems to make it clear that
we are talking about induction magnets here, no? The anxiety comes from the folks who want to move to a different
kind of design, the PM wind turbine, which GE and Siemens believe would have advantages for offshore wind.
**IF** we run out of good sites for onshore wind, or **IF** DFIG maintenance problems grow faster than the technology to reduce them,
a PM alternative may become useful in holding down costs and expanding supply. PLEASE notice the "ifs"!

So here is some interesting news. New Zealand has mounted an especially aggressive effort to find new uses for
HiTC superconductor materials. They claim that their companies are uniquely far along in making HiTc based
magnets commercially... available or at least near at hand. They claim that the technology has moved along
far enough and fast enough that they can do what the PM wind turbines were supposed to do, at significantly lower cost
and with far less use of rare earths. Not zero rare earths, but something like an order of magnitude less.
Also they are working with one of the major wind turbine makers to explore the commercial insertion of this technology.
It is 'way too early to have great confidence that this all will work out, but it would be an equally serious
mistake to underestimate it, even as a very near-term possibility. How many times has the US been blindsided
and hurt by its failure to appreciate developments either in other nations or in US universities themselves?

I am very sorry if some on the IEEE list have imagined that I was dogmatically shutting off hope about wind
working out as well as some have hoped (as I hoped myself in mid 2009). There is a lot that we do not
yet know about future wind options, and alternative options, and of course the rational strategy is to
try to explore the best hopes for all the large possibilities. Divan and Harley of Georgia Tech have important ideas
for how the total cost of wind to the rate payer can be reduced, in part by using breakthrough new power switching technology
they have developed, and the New Zealand work offers some more hope. This is not a matter of
incremental work or subsidies, but of focused credible breakthrough research, especially important in the area
of renewable electricity across the board.

WITH REGARD to 2 -- it now seems very clear to me, after a whole lot of due diligence and discussions
in many places, that we really don't need the PM traction motors any more, even though virtually
all the hybrids and EVS on the market today do use them. Breakthroughs are not needed; it's more
a matter of system integration, what some folks call "translational research" -- though it is often possible
to include some elements of translational research in breakthrough projects, in various ways.
Both switched reluctance motors (SRM) and induction motors (IMs) use induction motors,
and it appears that both can now outperform PM motors as the main traction motors for cars,
on all relevant metrics of performance, if available proven state of the art controls are used.
I'd be happy to discuss details and sources offline, for those who want to get really deep into this --
but to avoid wasting time, I would suggest that folks come up to speed first on the vehicles which
Emadi has used to demo these capabilities. Emadi's work is not the only evidence or resource, but logically
it is sufficient to prove the point. Still, larger scale demos or niche insertions would make the point clearer to those
who are not fully up to speed, or are skeptical.

WITH regard to 3 --

There is some important mixed news:

Until last week, I could say that talk about rare earths in batteries was basically a red herring.
For all of the coming batteries of serious relevance to plug-in hybrids or electric cars --
i.e. various types of lithium-ion and metal-air batteries -- we don't need significant rare earths.
The battery dependency was for irrelevant types of battery that propagandists liked to fix on.

But now... Thunder Sky has developed a new, additional line of products which do use yttrium.
The claim is that using yttrium makes it possible to build affordable car-scale batteries
(available for purchase today) which can be charged up in 10 minutes, and still last for 6,000 cycles.

On the one hand, this appears to be a really radical new opportunity, already at the stage of commercial availability.
Even as the US government works with SAE and so on to finalize a set of standards for EV recharging,
the Chinese are suggesting that a totally new recharging technology -- not accomodated by the
new US standards or US companies -- will offer a quantum breakthrough in what is available
to electric cars. The "early adopters" of pure electric vehicles are now somewhat fixated on the Nissan
Leaf, a "true electric car," which can be recharged over a mere half hour, in expensive new DC
fast charging stations. The US is moving towards adopting some form of the recharging technology
("chademo") which comes with that car. But a half hour is a long, long time to spend at a gas station, and Nissan warns that
the batteries will suffer if consumers do that too often. If the Chinese announcements are right,
they can do it in TEN minutes. And if we don't make the cars, it seems they will. But again,
this is still something of a niche market; the hybrids and plug-ins make more sense for the larger market
right now.

Notice that there is nothing aggressive about this Chinese announcement. They want to reduce THEIR dependence
on oil. This is primarily a domestic program. But it does change the role of rare earths,
and it raises many questions. I do not know HOW MUCH rare earths are needed in these batteries compared,
say, with PM traction motors in cars. I do not know how well the same sort of recharging might work
in Thunder Sky's OTHER batteries (which are largely free of rare earths). I do not know how hard it is
to get the same effect using other additives -- though I wonder why Nissan was stuck with a half hour;
presumably THEY at least made some effort to do better. This breakthrough does seem to reflect
China's superior technology in working with rare earths; that technology, not natural resources, is the main reason why
the world is so dependent on them for rare earths in the first place. Up to this point, I was guessing that
China's battery work was really relying heavily on things from US universities, but now it has gone past that point.

Also, of course, a lot of testing is needed to follow up on these questions, and to evaluate just what they have.
Of course, more could be said about any of these various threads.


More details:

Response to a friend who made some comments:
Comment 1: Has anyone tightened up the definition of 'rare earth' for the purposes of such discussions? I have been party to a couple such situations which started off with the alarmism you cite, and which then went immediately to hand-wringing about Li -- which is NOT a rare earth by the well-established chemistry definition...

Lithium is CERTAINLY not a rare earth.

At the first TREM conference, they seemed reasonably precise about which elements are rare earths. Competent people stuck by that definition... agreeing on the list of which elements are and which are not.

If anyone calls Li a rare earth, that's a typical case of egregious ignorance or psychopathology. All too common these days -- but unusually stark in a case like this, where the terms are very well established.

The other issue really relates to economic incentives. The only reason that China currently has a hammerlock on rare earths is that they are the ones who have been mining them.

As I said, their technology to mine, separate and use rare earths is what has given them this unique position,
more than resources as such. It was their decision to develop all that, and ours not to.

(By the way, lithium supply is not a real constraint either, though we do need to keep an eye on lithium. Maybe I'll post more about that later.)

Comment 2: With reasonable economic incentives, there are other places that could supply specific needs; possibly some in this country as well. (I note with interest a recent protest by citizens in the Telluride CO area, having to do with renewal of uranium mining in that locale: In fact, those particular mines have a number of other possible byproducts, one, of course being tellurium...)

There are a lot of folks working on such things right now -- not only in US but
in other nations like Australia. Their efforts are an important part of the system.
On the other hand, there are long lag times involved, and I've seen some curves suggesting
some discrepancy between curves of future demand by year and supply...
reducing unnecessary demand has an important role to play here, along with efforts
to create more supply, as with fossil fuels. And, as with fossil fuels, there is some
reason to want to err on the side of low demand, because resources are not infinite.

Catching up on technology is not quite so simple as pouring in more cash -- again,
as is the case with batteries.

After I posted that email, I was tempted to make some comments about how we have been cutting back
quite significantly on the education system (from K-12 to university) recently, even as China moves ahead, and may be on the verge of much deeper cutbacks in March. That worries me a lot too.

I am not saying, without specifics, that China's rare earth monopoly is a red herring, but I am quite confident that for most materials of interest, other possible sources exist, and it is simply economics that has them out of the market at the moment.

I agree with the folks at the first TREM conference who said that the lithium supply and rare earths issues
have been vastly distorted and exaggerated by certain folks, BUT THAT rational policy does
include keeping an eye on them, and working to avoid excessive unnecessary risks.

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