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MIT study finds shift to green energy sources could mean crunch in supply of key rare earth elements

Comparison of demand projections for REE (total summed). Credit: ACS, Alonso et al. Click to enlarge.

A large-scale shift from coal-fired electric power plants and gasoline-fueled cars to wind turbines and electric vehicles could increase demand for two already-scarce rare earth elements (REE)—dysprosium and neodymium, available almost exclusively in China—by 600-2,600 percent over the next 25 years, according to a new study published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The study by researchers at MIT also points out that production of the two metals has been increasing by only a few percentage points per year.

...the availability of REEs appears to be at risk based on a number of factors. Of particular significance, one country (China) controls 98% of current supply (production). Historically, much lower levels of market concentration have harmed manufacturing firms. For example, in 1978 Zaire controlled 48% of the cobalt supply and yet political unrest in Zaire resulted in a disruption to global supply that became known as the “Cobalt Crisis”.

Another contributor to supply risk for REEs is the fact that they are comined; individual REEs are not mined separately. REEs are found together in geological deposits, rendering mining of individual elements economically inefficient. The supply of any individual REE depends on the geology of the deposits, the costs of the extraction technology employed, and the price of the basket of rare earths (RE). Finally, REEs have come under global scrutiny due to the environmental and social conditions under which they are mined, further increasing their supply risk.

—Alonso et al.

While the literature contains a number of reports that evaluate different aspects of RE availability, Randolph E. Kirchain, Ph.D., and colleagues evaluated future potential demand scenarios for REEs with a focus on the issue of comining. They analyzed the supply of lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium under various scenarios, and projected the demand for these 10 rare earth elements through 2035.

In particular, they estimated resource requirements for electric vehicles and windturbines (revolutionary demand areas for REEs) from performance specifications and vehicle sales or turbine deployment projections. Future demand was estimated for a range of scenarios including one developed by the International Energy Agency (IEA) with adoption of electric vehicles and wind turbines at a rate consistent with stabilization of CO2 in the atmosphere at a level of 450 ppm.

In one scenario, demand for dysprosium and neodymium could be higher than 2,600 and 700 percent respectively. To meet that need, production of dysprosium would have to grow each year at nearly twice the historic growth rate for rare earth supplies.

The applications that will be most negatively affected by constraints in these REEs (i.e., increased costs) will be those dependent upon high performance magnets. Applications such as petroleum refining, which depend on elements whose supply is projected to exceed demand, may be positively affected if primary producers increase overall production to meet the higher demand for specific elements. If a secondary market emerges to meet the higher demand for specific elements (i.e., recycling of magnets, but not catalysts), then, given that the portfolio of recycled REEs would be significantly different from the portfolio of primary supply, the overall supply portfolio of REEs could change.

...In the end, prices are not the only forces that will influence the REE markets. Government intervention in this market is prevalent. Also, corporate social responsibility policies may influence some firm’s decisions to use REE unless environmental concerns around their mining are addressed. These issues should be considered carefully by interested stakeholders and future research on this topic.

—Alonso et al.


  • Elisa Alonso, Andrew M. Sherman, Timothy J. Wallington, Mark P. Everson, Frank R. Field, Richard Roth, and Randolph E. Kirchain (2012) Evaluating Rare Earth Element Availability: A Case with Revolutionary Demand from Clean Technologies. Environmental Science & Technology doi: 10.1021/es203518d



We have REE mines in the California desert, but no refining ability. They send the raw ore to China to be refined.

This is another example of the private sector not investing in something that is not hugely profitable, but is in the national interest. China knows it is in their national interest and they invest in it.



what you mention is typically the failure of on only profit oriented market economy in which we have moved starting in the early 80s, the failure to see that strategic commodities or technologies might need non profitable money (if I except the military). We will come back from it and soon...


The ideology seems to be if it is profitable, it is worth doing and if it is not as profitable as something else it is not. There seems to be NO other considerations.

Reagan keep talking about "cost benefit", but it was never explained WHO would benefit. It was not the most good for the most people, but the biggest return for the investors.



Agree, but he is still seen as the savior of america...like you said he essentially made rich richer and poors poorer ...


It will take China and others eating our lunch, then you may hear wrong wingers whining that "someone should do something", that might change it.

People should just stop listening to the wrong wing, they have been wrong every time and ruined the country, but they keep getting votes.


People will (are) seeking out ways around this problem by:

a: finding other ways of making magnets and
b: Finding other sources of REEs
Once you really start looking, you will find them.

They have to create scares like this to get people motivated.


Let's not panic:

1. Rare metals exist in many other places and will be mined whenever the price is right.

2. Efficient e-motors can be built without rare metals.

3. Efficient batteries can be built with less or without lithium.

4. Vehicles (all sizes) can operate without fossil and/or liquid fuel.

5. Clean electricity is sustainable and plentiful.

6. Batteries and e-motors can be recycled.



"5. Clean electricity is sustainable and plentiful."

I think you are being a bit optimistic here.

If by clean electricity you mean wind, solar and hydro (and wave etc.), then any one of these is available in many places, but wind and solar are not a constant source - you cannot build a grid on wind or solar (or even wind and solar) alone. You need something to fill in the gaps in production.
The gaps are the 65-75% of the time when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine.

You can balance it with hydro (if you are lucky to have enough of it) or gas or other fossils.

If you include nuclear, then it is a possibility, but you have to be careful (and avoid tsunamis).




As for the wind not blowing 65-75% of the time? That's only true if you think very locally. The fact is the wind is always blowing somewhere within a 100 mile radius of where you are. So the answer to a stable supply of wind power is to think on a larger scale, as in: Interconnecting Geographically Distributed Wind Farms

A study in the US mid-west showed that one
third or 33% of annual power production from distributed wind farms could be counted on to supply
base load with the same reliability as a coal power plant. Because generation sites would also be
closer to demand, grid distribution losses would be cut from 7% to less than 2%. In Spain, where
wind farms are distributed over the entire country, hourly variations in the supply from wind are
effectively eliminated - smoothing out the electricity supply from wind.



Also, another way to get more wind power more of the time is by collecting it from higher up where the capacity factor is greater;




Why has Denmark only got to 22 percent wind power ?

They have the Norwegian and German grids on their doorsteps to buffer the wind, and they still have not gone beyond 21.9%

At least France got to 79% energy from Nuclear.


I think the problem in Denmark is one of money. Someone once told me the electricity rates there are even higher than their neighbours across the border. In 2000 they were the highest in europe. And if that weren't bad enough Denmark is a prime wind area with more wind turbines than it actually needs (added to the high Danish electric bill were the subsidies that support the private companies building the wind towers - so everybody got in on the game). When the wind is blowing just right for the turbines, the power they generate was usually a surplus and sold to other countries at an extremely discounted price. If still true, connecting to the Norwegian and German grids would be an export with a huge revenue loss.


In a larger country the regional solutions I'm talking about would not be complicated by international economic politics.


Like, say in the USA ?

There seems to be loads of problems over building and paying for the power lines to move the energy from generation to consumption.
This used to be very local (using coal, gas, nuclear etc.), but the requirements to move wind from the midwest to the cities isn't going very well.

You might be able to do it in China which has a partial command economy.

Europe, too is fragmented, and they are a bit short of cash at present. Also, they (especially the Germans) are getting burnt by the over generous subsidies they gave to solar.

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