Rare Earths & Waste-to-Energy from the Middle Kingdom

Rare Earths & Waste-to-Energy from the Middle Kingdom

Unusual elements called “rare earths” can drive green technologies: Tiny quantities of dysprosium can make magnets in electric motors lighter by 90%, while terbium can help cut the electricity usage of lights by 80%. China is the primary source, where there are also unbounded opportunities for waste to energy projects.

Keith Bradshe for Business Day (27 December 2009):

SOME of the greenest technologies of our time – from electric cars to efficient light bulbs to large wind turbines – are made possible by a group of unusual elements called rare earths. The world’s dependence on these substances is rising fast.

Just one problem – these elements come almost entirely from some of China’s most environmentally damaging mines, in an industry dominated by criminal gangs.

Western capitals are suddenly worried about China’s near monopoly, which gives it a potential stranglehold on technologies of the future. In Washington, Congress has just ordered a study of potential alternatives to the Chinese rare earth materials that are crucial to the US military.

In Guyun Village, a small community in south-eastern China fringed by lush bamboo groves and banana trees, the environmental damage can be seen in the red-brown scars of barren clay where emerald rice fields once grew.

Miners scrape off the topsoil and shovel golden-flecked clay into dirt pits, using acids to extract the rare earths. The acids wash into streams and rivers, destroying rice paddies and tainting water supplies.

There are 17 rare-earth elements, some of which, despite the name, are not particularly rare. However, two heavy rare earth elements, dysprosium and terbium, are in especially short supply, mainly because they have emerged as crucial ingredients of green energy products.

Tiny quantities of dysprosium can make magnets in electric motors lighter by 90 per cent, while terbium can help cut the electricity usage of lights by 80 per cent. Dysprosium prices have climbed nearly sevenfold since 2003, to $53 a pound. Terbium prices quadrupled from 2003 to 2008, peaking at $407.

China mines more than 99 per cent of the world’s dysprosium and terbium. Most production comes from about 200 mines in Guangdong and in neighbouring Jiangxi province.

Half the heavy rare earth mines have licenses and half are illegal. Western importers don’t know where the minerals they buy have come from.

”I don’t know if part of that feed, internal in China, came from an illegal mine and went in a legal separator,” said David Kennedy, president of Great Western Technologies in Michigan, which imports rare earths.

Source: www.businessday.com.au

Susan Kraemer for Reuters World Environment News (30 December 2009):

Here’s an opportunity to wisely spend some of the $100 billion that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised at Copenhagen to cut the greenhouse gases of developing nations by aiding in the development of renewable energy infrastructure to by-pass fossil fuel dependence.

Apparently one in four Chinese cities and seven out of 10 counties are without sewage-treatment plants, according to the People’s Daily. While there are many ways to treat sewage or municipal waste; one of the newest is the use of municipal solid waste to make renewable energy.

Converting waste to energy is done in several ways. One is making bio-gas from sewage (human or animal) to run gas-turbine driven electric power plants.

Another is to create a biofuel, such as that used by nearly every vehicle in Sweden’s fifth largest city Linkoping. Greenhouse gas emissions there were reduced as much as 90% with the technology. It helped Sweden achieve a 9% below-Kyoto emissions cut with simultaneous 44% economic growth.

This presents an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone; by building the infrastructure in the developing world that uses municipal solid waste to make renewable energy. This would cut the greatest source of the rise expected in greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use in the next decades: from fast-developing nations like India and China.

The developed world evolved water treatment technologies well before our knowledge of climate change drove us to invent uses for municipal solid waste as a source of renewable energy with no greenhouse gas emissions.

But now, nations that do not already have any sewage treatment infrastructure in place are well placed to leapfrog the developed world, which is only just starting to tap into waste-to-energy from municipal solid waste, or sewage.

For all kinds of municipal waste-to-energy companies, this presents a huge opportunity. The developed world has pledged $100 billion to develop renewable energy in the developing world. As I noted here, that money is not charity – as it is incorrectly framed in most media reports (previous story), but it will go to the renewable energy companies from those nations that get there first. This waste-to-energy plant pictured is from a New Zealand company that has apparently already built numerous large facilities throughout Asia.

Source: www.planetark.org

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