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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.