The Rare Earth Conundrum

Buddy: a Norwegian electric car.(Photo: shannon kringen)

Electric cars are all the rage today, but some of the smartest people I know believe that moving towards electric vehicles is a terrible idea. Looking casually as an outsider at the unappealing economics of electric vehicles (the need for a new and immensely expensive infrastructure, cars that cost much more than either traditional gas engines or hybrids, limited ranges and long recharging times), I find it hard to understand why the Obama administration is pushing electric cars.

One argument I’ve heard is “national security,” the idea being that electric vehicles would make the United States less dependent on imported oil. Be careful what you wish for, however, because if electric cars become a mainstay, we may be trading one dependence for another that is even more troubling. Ninety-five percent of the world’s output of rare-earth metals today comes from one country: China. By some estimates, demand will outstrip supply within five years. At least with oil we know there are fifty years of oil reserves readily available. Moreover, oil is produced all over the world, limiting the monopoly power of any one country.

Rare earth metals are fifteen lanthanoids, plus scandium and yttrium.Photo: Steve Smith

Katherine Bourzac’s interesting piece in MIT’s Technology Review profiles the plight of the only active rare-earth producing mine in the Western Hemisphere.

It is quite possible that scientists will figure out alternatives that lessen the need for rare-earth metals. If not, add the words dysprosium, praseodymium, and terbium to your vocabulary, because you will be hearing a lot about these elements in the future, and the news is not likely to be good.

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  1. MikeM says:

    I think I remember reading a few months ago that the U.S. has significant rare earths in the ground, but it hasn’t been economically viable to mine them here. China can mine them cheaply and sell them to the rest of the world. Certainly if electric cars become a huge market, that will change.

    That’s not to say that the point still holds that this isn’t that much different from the patroleum problem in the long run.

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  2. headhunt23 says:

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  3. Ryan Money says:

    What are your thoughts then or your “friends” thoughts on natural gas vehicls NVG’s?

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  4. Dave says:

    Good post, and I’ve learned a bit about the role rare-earth metals play in electric cars’ operation. After reading a previous post on this blog, ‘A Crude Guess About the Future’ I am falling on the side of scientists figuring something out. This extract from the Crude… article is what I’m referring to specifically:

    “But I bet if I could conjure up oilmen from the past, they’d tell me that thanks to the wondrous, futuristic science of 1919, most of the oil that the laws of engineering and physics would permit man to cost-effectively extract had been discovered, and that supplying 800 million vehicles worldwide would be a mathematical and physical impossibility, by orders of magnitude.”

    It seems possible that the rare-earth conundrum may parallel the oil conundrum. And, while rare-earth metals, like oil, are certainly limited in supply (to quote the Crude post), “human creativity is limitless.”

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  5. jblog says:

    “Ninety-five percent of the world’s output of rare-earth metals today comes from one country: China.”

    True, that’s a today statement. Right now, a rare earth mine in California is being reopened, where new technologies will allow the minerals to be mined in a cleaner, more efficient and economical fashion than in the past. This could substantially reduce our dependence on China for these minerals.

    http://www.npr.org/2011/01/31/133372641/california-challenges-china-in-rare-earths-mining

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  6. Joe says:

    What is the availability of rare earth metals in space? Were we to start mining asteroids (either near-earth objects or going further afield), could we obtain useful amounts of rare earth metals there?

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    • Tom Maguire says:

      Even though predicting the future of cars is probably a fool’s errand, it sounds like it’s going to be Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology. It’s moving forward in the EU but Palladium is needed in the Hydrogen refining process.
      Electric cars really only seem viable for specific uses and not as All Purpose Vehicles like how today’s gas powered internal combustion engine function.
      I suspect The Future will entail families owning different types of cars for different purposes. An around town plug-in electric that can charge at a Starbucks (that’s happening). A Hydrogen Fuel Car that can go longer distances between fill-ups as filling stations will be few and far between for the foreseeable future.

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      • Matthew says:

        I look forward to this “Future” when everyone has so much money they can buy multiple cars and consume energy in the most efficient manner at all times. I wish I didn’t have to drive my full sized 4 door truck by myself, but when my family of 5 loads it up with luggage and bikes and car seats and strollers for a weekend vacation to Grandma’s no other car would serve except a big SUV. I’d be happy to add a Smart ForTwo to my driveway for my commute to work. Am I going to get a grant to cover the purchase cost, as well as the increased insurance I will pay for carrying an extra vehicle on my policy?

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      • James says:

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      • Patty says:

        What IS that all about when people idle and idle and idle their cars? People sit in their vehicle and chit chat with the neighbor for 20 min with the big truck idling the whole time, and not just during cold weather. I have never understood this behavior. Or they warm up the car, and it isn’t winter and they are not transporting a frail relative. ???

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  7. Jason says:

    A bit Malthusian, Levitt. As you already know, our oil supply was completely consumed years ago when gas was 25¢ a gallon and reserves would only last a couple of decades.

    You can’t be serious.

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  8. KeithR says:

    Regardless of one’s view on anthropogenic pollution and climate change we should be driving forward (excuse the pun) to more efficient power supplies in all industries; which, for the most part is happening. Of course there will be obstacles and often the solution is an economic opportunity for someone. Concerns such as National Security are a pathetic excuse in the face of a globalized economy. If a nation or company can’t compete in a paradigm they become irrelevant, not “too big to fail”.

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