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