“Investigating Rare Earth Element Mine Development in EPA Region 8 and Potential Environmental Impacts,” is the title of the study released in August 2011. In it’s study EPA reported on several sites located in the intermountain West, from Idaho to Colorado, which could become only the second REE mining operation in the entire country. (LINK) This study reported extensively on the possible sources of contaminants and waste byproducts associated with all mining, and especially those concentrated in REE-related extraction. This study clearly explains why Green technology is not actually “Green” and why US plants producing such products as photovoltaic cells have closed (even with federal funding) and moved to other countries.
The truth is so-called “green” tech, is more hazardous to the human health and the environment than burning coal to make electricity. The EPA reports:
“…every ton of rare earth elements produced generates approximately 8.5 kilograms of fluorine and 13 kilograms of flue dust. Additionally, sulfuric acid refining techniques used to produce one ton of rare earth elements generates 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters of gas laden with flue dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid. Not only are large quantities of harmful gas produced, alarming amounts of liquid and solid waste also resulted from Chinese refining processes. They estimate at the completion of refining one ton of rare earth elements, approximately 75 cubic meters of acidic waste water and about one ton of radioactive waste residue are produced. The IAGS reports China produced over 130,000 metric tons of rare earth elements in 2008 alone (IAGS, 2010). Extrapolation of the waste generation estimates over total production yields extreme amounts of waste. With little environmental regulation, stories of environmental pollution and human sickness remain frequent in areas near Chinese rare earth element production facilities.”
The volume of hazardous waste produced for each metric ton of REE is vast. To put it in terms understandable the average car weighs about one metric ton (2204 lbs), that is the amount of radioactive waste produced for each metric ton of REEs. In addition about 20,000 gallons of acidic waste water is created (the amount that fills a large swimming pool). The reason China produces 95% of the rare earth elements is not just because they can be found in China, but because it is one of the few places where they can be mined. In the US the EPA would not allow the vast amount of pollution associated with REE mining to even be considered. These REEs are are vital for green-energy products including giant wind turbines, hybrid gasoline-electric cars and compact fluorescent bulbs.
Consider “Green” Power like wind; there are two tons of REEs used in the permanent magnets of every 3 MW wind turbine. That means that 2 tons radioactive waste and the equivalent of 130,000 swimming pools of acid water waste are generated for each turbine. Nuclear power per KWH is far less damaging to the environment, including less radioactive waste per KW of generated electricity. Explain how “green” wind power is again?
Since China owns 95% of the REE’s they set the price. REE’s prices have skyrocketed because demand is artificially higher (we demand “green” tech) and there is a single government controlled source. “The high cost of rare earths is having a significant chilling effect on wind turbine and electric motor production in spite of offsetting government subsidies for green tech products,” said Michael N. Silver, chairman and chief executive of American Elements, a chemical company based in Los Angeles that supplies rare earths and other high-tech materials.
From the EPA report;
“Permanent magnets represent the staple clean energy technology of future green economies. They constitute main components of lightweight, high powered motors and generators due to their production of a stable magnetic field without the need for an external power source. Permanent magnet motors power contemporary electric, hybrid electric, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, while permanent magnet generators produce electricity from wind turbines (USDOE, 2010). The key element derived samarium-cobalt permanent magnets dominate rare earth technology because they produce a magnetic field in a much smaller size. The samarium-cobalt permanent magnet also retains its magnetic strength at high temperatures making it ideal for clean energy and even military applications, including precision guided munitions and aircrafts (IAGS, 2010).
Permanent magnets work in conjunction with high efficiency rare earth based batteries to store energy in electric, hybrid electric, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (USDOE, 2010). Current generation hybrid electric vehicles use a battery with a cathode containing a host of rare earths including lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, praseodymium, and cobalt (Kopera, 2004). Each hybrid electric battery may contain several kilograms of rare earth materials (USDOE, 2010). Plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles require even greater storage capacity and higher power ratings than typical hybrid vehicles. In light of this, automakers will likely use the lithium ion battery, increasing demand for yet another key element. Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory estimated one lithium ion battery contains 3.4-12.7 kilograms of lithium depending on proprietary design (USDOE, 2010).”
Hybrid cars, like Toyota’s Prius, contain around 25 pounds of rare earth elements. “Green” technology uses twice the REEs of regular vehicles. So if you do the math on the amount of REEs used by hybrid and electic cars sold in the USA have used over 5 MILLION pounds of REEs. We won’t even go into the energy used and waste generated “re-cycling” used up cars laden with REEs.
Now take the lowly lightbulb; we are being forced to purchase CFL’s not traditional incandescent lightbulbs. CFL’s are getting more and more expensive, had if you breakone you need to have a hazmat suit, evacuate your home, and treat your floor like a hazardous waste site, but at least they are “Green.” The coust of CFL’s is going up and up; why? Because of the amount of REEs involved in their production. REE costs are climbing at unprecedented rates. Here’s what GE has to say about it; “Rare earths are undergoing extreme cost increases due to unprecedented market forces. In less than 12 months, costs of some rare earth oxide materials used in lighting products have experienced increases ranging from 500 percent to more than 2,000 percent, and they continue to climb. For perspective, if the rate of inflation on the rare earth element europium oxide were applied to a $2.00 cup of coffee, the new cost would be $24.55.”
And why are REEs so expensive, and why aren’t mines opening up in other countries? Again from GE’s Rare Earth FAQ; “In addition, increasing environmental standards and growing labor wages have resulted in the development of fewer mines.” In not so politically correct terms, the EPA and US federal regulations make mining REEs in the USA cost prohibitive.
It’s going to get worse. China, acting like a sensible owner of it’s own resources, will keep more and more of it’s REE for use within China. In its latest report, "Rare Earths & Yttrium: Market outlook to 2015, 14th edition 2011," international metals and minerals research firm Roskill said much of the total output would go to Chinese manufacturers to address the demands of domestic industry, leaving only a small amount for export.
This explains why even after receiving lots of US Federal Dollars (stimulus money) BP closed its US Photovoltaic manufacturing plant and moved it to China. Having to import REEs from China puts you into a business that will not be allowed to compete. The cost of REEs exported from China will become too expensive.
This is not China’s fault, other countries including the USA have REEs that could be mined. We choose not to do so for environmental and political reasons. No company in its right mind would take the risk and costs associated with mining REEs in the USA under current federal regulations. Knowing China has vast reserves and could flood the market making it impossible to sell your REEs, and the huge costs associated with mining in a manner which meets US federal environmental standards,
Green tech and materials will not be done in the USA. Green tech requires REEs, our Government has regulated green tech out of the country. It is also regulating traditional energy out of business like coal generation of electrical power. If you didn’t know better you’d think that liberal greenies want the US to exist at third world energy and technology use.
We may want green tech like more wind mills, but they are hugely expensive, going to get more expensive, and will not be able to be created in the USA because of the scarcity of REEs. BP recently ceased production of solar cells at its Frederick, Md., plant and laid off 320 of the 430 employees. Thus ending all of BP’s solar cell manufacturing in the U.S. Green jobs promised by Obama, are being killed by Federal Regulations.
Until we solve the resource problem associated with REE’s, “Green” technology will remain cost prohibitive to the average person. Just as “Green” tech CFL’s now cost as much as much as 10 times traditional tech incandescent lightbulbs. The Chevy Volt costs more than double the same vehicle powered with traditional tech (it would be 3 times the cost if not for government subsidies), only the very wealth making a fashion statement can afford “Green” tech.