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

Ree
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.

Resources

  • 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

Comments

ai_vin

Anne, you're Dutch right?

Your thoughts please on this idea for linking offshore wind to offshore storage of energy;
http://www.kema.com/services/consulting/etd/es/large-scale-storage.aspx
http://www.ecogeek.org/content/view/1017/

Arne

@ai_vin,

I think it would be a nice 'commercial' for our offshore industry. But my guess is that the tourism part will be the most profitable.

Energy storage is not necessary now and won't be in the foreseeable future. A 2nd NorNed cable would be much more valuable and not restricted by a small 20 GWh capacity.

The need for storage when the amount of fluctuating renewable energy (mainly wind and pv) increases is much exaggerated. In Europe, reinforcing cross border grids is cheaper, especially with nations that have ample hydro (Scandinavia and the Alps).

Then there also will be geothermal and biomass available as on-demand sources to complement variable sources.

And finally, distributed storage is more valuable to ease local peak loads on the grid. This centralized solution will need an expensive new connection to the grid. The opposite is true for strategically placed, localized storage. This can make grid upgrades unnecessary or at least postpone them. And make the grid more reliable too.

Engineer-Poet

The USA cannot balance wind with hydro.  Hydropower is already overbuilt (some has already been removed to ameliorate environmental impacts), and on some of the remainder there are further restrictions on flow rates to maintain the seasonal cycles necessary for wildlife.  This is a capability that is contracting, not expanding.  It is also very geographically restricted and subject to depletion in drought conditions.

Solar thermal is subject to strong seasonal and weather variations.  I haven't seen a proposal for a system that can weather a cloudy week.

Local storage isn't a bad idea.  I like CAES because it does not rely on particulars of latitude, climate or weather.

Arne

EP,

Hydro alone is not enough. I know that. It is a part of the solution.

The US for example has some very good geothermal resources and I believe it can function very well as dispatchable power for balancing purposes.

Most of the long term balancing (a week without sun and wind) will have to be done with biomass.

Engineer-Poet

The problem with geothermal is the same as nuclear:  almost all of the cost is capital expense, so they will be run as base load and not peaking.  The heat reservoir is a finite resource, but once the wells are in the best ROI comes from producing all-out.

I'm with you on biomass.  Biomass meshes well as the re-heat contributor of a CAES system, raising the fuel-to-electric efficiency well above that of stand-alone schemes.  CoP considerably greater than 1 should be possible (omitting compression work).

ai_vin

The USA cannot balance wind with hydro. Hydropower is already overbuilt (some has already been removed to ameliorate environmental impacts),

E-P you're focusing too much on conventional hydro. we dam rivers to get hydro "power" because we need the rivers to refill the reservoirs. When you link hydro to other renewable energy sources you no longer need to dam rivers, you just need a change in elevation.

If you live near a mountain you're lucky but even if you don't you just need to think out of the box:
Was there ever mining in your area? Let the old mines flood and build water tanks on the surface.
Is there a lake nearby? Anchor rubber bags on the bottom and pump them full of air.
Is your city full of highrises? Did it ever use water towers?

There is a synergy here: We generate electricity for human use but humans also need a supply of water, let's use the same infrastructure for both.

Engineer-Poet
When you link hydro to other renewable energy sources you no longer need to dam rivers
If you don't have a dam you don't have a reservoir and you don't have storage to back up other renewables when they're down.  Thanks for playing.
Was there ever mining in your area? Let the old mines flood and build water tanks on the surface.
They're almost certainly flooded already.  Pump the water out and find them full again, especially after lack of repairs accelerates the leakage.  And you'll need how many exactly?

There's plenty of empty mined space under e.g. Detroit, but it's salt mines...

Is there a lake nearby? Anchor rubber bags on the bottom and pump them full of air.
People don't care for large fluctuations in their lake levels.
Is your city full of highrises? Did it ever use water towers?
It's not, they're not designed to take huge amounts of new load on top, and the energy storage would be trivial anyway (1 story's worth of water tank @ 2.5 m high * 800 m² per floor * 60 m high * 1000 kg/m³ * 9.8 m/s² = 327 kWh, about 5 Tesla Roadster's worth).

These problems are not easy.  That's why they haven't been solved already

ai_vin

And now you're nit-picking.

If you don't have a dam you don't have a reservoir and you don't have storage to back up other renewables when they're down.

Missing the point much? I said "you no longer need to dam *rivers*." A dam or dike around any bit of land at elevation is all you need for pumped storage;
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pumped-storage_hydroelectricity

That, and some water to start off with. The water get recycled back and forth.

There's plenty of empty mined space under e.g. Detroit, but it's salt mines...

Great, then Detroit DOES have a way to store energy. Oh wait, your point was that just letting water into the mine would create a mess of salty water? Golly gee wizz, I wish there was a way to keep the two separate. A way like, oh I don't know, a second set of tanks in the mine itself? Sorry to be so snippy but I really think you're trying too hard to find faults when the solutions are so basic.

ai_vin

BTW; It's been done before.

Arne

EP,

"The problem with geothermal is the same as nuclear: almost all of the cost is capital expense, so they will be run as base load and not peaking."

Yes, but where are the main costs? It is the drilling, not the generator. Installing a larger generator will not significantly increase the cost of geothermal.

"The heat reservoir is a finite resource, but once the wells are in the best ROI comes from producing all-out."

I'm sorry, but that's wrong. You are overlooking one crucial detail: variable energy prices.

The constraint of a geothermal well is on average power, not peak power. So as long as you keep an eye on average power (to prevent thermal depletion of your well), you must always try to get the highest price. Even if your plant is more expensive as a result, that might still be offset by the higher price you get for selling that power during peak times.

Arne

ai_vin,

"A dam or dike around any bit of land at elevation is all you need for pumped storage [...] That, and some water to start off with. The water get recycled back and forth."

Except for one thing: you need to compensate for evaporation.

Engineer-Poet
A dam or dike around any bit of land at elevation is all you need for pumped storage
You said "hydro", not "pumped hydro".  Pumped hydro has impoundments and needs generally upper AND lower reservoirs.  If you don't have a large lake handy, you need to build both of them.  The negatives of these are sufficient that not many have been built despite the substantial opportunties for abitrage.

The Ludington pumped-storage plant has an upper reservoir of 1.3 square miles, but can only supply ~1.9 GW for some hours (the exact energy storage capability is not listed on the official website).  Offsetting the variability of RE for the USA even for a couple of days would require several hundreds of such plants.  This seems unlikely in the extreme.

Oh wait, your point was that just letting water into the mine would create a mess of salty water? Golly gee wizz, I wish there was a way to keep the two separate. A way like, oh I don't know, a second set of tanks in the mine itself?
The point is that leaks, which you're going to have, will dissolve and collapse the pillars of the room-and-pillar mine, causing the whole city to subside by about 20 feet and putting it below the level of the Detroit river.  Not that you could afford to build tanks inside the salt mine in the first place.
I really think you're trying too hard to find faults when the solutions are so basic.
I think you're really trying too hard to minimize the difficulties when history makes them so obvious.
BTW; It's been done before.
Did you notice
  1. the tanks are quite small compared even to my example,
  2. it's NOT being done to store energy, and
  3. re-filling the tanks is done using grid power on demand?
The devil is in the details.

Engineer-Poet
The constraint of a geothermal well is on average power, not peak power.
News to me; pipe sizes tend to impose hard limits, don't they?  Got a reference I can peruse?
ai_vin

I think you're really trying too hard to minimize the difficulties when history makes them so obvious.

Yeah, well I can't help that. You know how there are some people who say the glass is half full and others who say it's half empty? Well I'm the guy who says "it's a full glass: One half is full of water and the other half is full of air." ;^)

For me, an energy storage system that can supply about 5 Tesla Roadster's worth is not a trivial thing - not when it's a part of a larger "distributed" storage system.

ai_vin

You said "hydro", not "pumped hydro". Pumped hydro has impoundments and needs generally upper AND lower reservoirs. If you don't have a large lake handy, you need to build both of them. The negatives of these are sufficient that not many have been built despite the substantial opportunties for abitrage.

If not many pumped hydro facilities have been built despite the substantial opportunties it's because the whole idea of energy storage is so new and not many energy storage facilities of any kind have been built. However, even so, Pumped Storage Hydro(PSH) is the largest-capacity form of grid energy storage available, and, as of March 2012, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) reports that PSH accounts for more than 99% of bulk storage capacity worldwide, representing around 127,000 MW. It is being done, it's just that we're still at the start of that old "S" curve.

Engineer-Poet
an energy storage system that can supply about 5 Tesla Roadster's worth is not a trivial thing - not when it's a part of a larger "distributed" storage system.
Reality check:  a 60 m building would be 10-12 stories.  800 m²/floor is about 10 apartments.  327 kWh over 100 apartments is 3.3 kWh apiece, or about 3 hours of storage at the typical US consumption per household.  You are not even going to get through the evening on that.  A few lead-acid deep-cycle batteries per unit would do the job with far less weight and much easier expansion.
the whole idea of energy storage is so new
I cannot believe I am seeing such ignorant statements from you.  The Ludington pumped-storage plant broke ground in 1969, and the technology goes back to the 19th century.
Pumped Storage Hydro(PSH) is the largest-capacity form of grid energy storage available
That is a problem, because it is both technically and politically difficult to expand.  Any other technology starts from less than 1% of the installed base.  I still root for CAES.
I'm the guy who says "it's a full glass: One half is full of water and the other half is full of air." ;^)
You can assert that vigorous hand-waving will drive the wind farms when needed, but that won't keep the lights on.  These problems are inherently hard, and only a tiny fraction of thinkable solutions fall in the set of actual solutions.  If you won't run the numbers, you might as well try to start a flamewar to heat your house in a North Dakota winter.
Henry Gibson

Where natural gas is available, co-generation (CHPC) is the cheapest way to reduce CO2 release and to expand energy availability and reliability. With modern electronics and engineering there is no reason to have both a natural gas grid and an electrical grid. Especially when all new installed generation is required to be Natural gas powered. Cogenerators should get their gas at the same low prices as the utilities do or just a bit more for billing complications. The price charged for electrical service is about double per kWh as the cost to deliver it. ..HG..

SJC

Lake Castaic and Pyramid Lake were build in the 1920s in California for water and power. They have been working fine as pumped hydro for more than 80 years.

Engineer-Poet

And what are the prospects for expanding them or building more, SJC?

IIRC, there's a move to eliminate the Hetch Hetchy reservoir east of SF to restore the valley.  Not the sort of thing that gives one positive vibes about adding massive new pumped-storage sites, even if you can find the water to handle the added evaporative losses.

SJC

I was not suggesting that there was a great chance of building many more, just pointing out that this one had been done quite a while ago and was still being used.

Water resources are a big deal in California, with Arizona taking their share of Colorado River water, there is less for farming in the Imperial Valley and else where.

We have the water resources in the Sierras and the Sacramento river, but lack the good levies and canals to use that. If we ever get the money, it would be good to expand and pumped hydro could be part of that.

morkel001

I was not suggesting that there was a great chance of building many more, just pointing out that this one had been done quite a while ago and was still being used. moving to london

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