Monthly Archives: May 2015

rare earth elements

Rare Earth Elements

As is the case in so much manufacturing, China is now the world leader in the production of a class of elements known as rare earths. They are not actually rare in terms of relative abundance in the earth’s crust, Cerium for example is about as common as Copper. The rare part of the name comes from the fact that they are difficult to obtain because they generally don’t occur in high concentration deposits as do better known metallic elements such as Iron, Copper, and Nickel.

Where they are found, the ores occur in lower concentrations and because the various rare earth elements have very similar chemical properties, they are difficult to separate. This makes the processing all the more expensive. Seventeen elements constitute the group, the majority of which occur in the Lanthanide Series of elements.

Although they share much of their chemical properties, each has unique uses especially in electronics and other modern high tech products.

One of the more common is Neodymium (Nd, atomic number 60.) It confers hardness and unique optical properties when used in small amounts as a dopant in glass. This glass is then used in the manufacture of certain kinds of lasers. Nd is also used in an alloy for high strength permanent magnets. Neodymium magnets have the advantage of having a high magnetic field strength to weight ratio. Applications include loud speakers, in-ear headphones and computer disks.

Several of the rare earths were first discovered in Ytterby, a small town in Sweden,. Yttrium (Y no. 39), Ytterbium (Yb 70), Erbium (Er 68), and Terbium (Tb 65) all take their name from the same mine

As noted many modern devices utilize rare earths – electronics, magnets, lasers, batteries, and efficient lightning just to name a few. An obvious modern device loaded with rare earths is a hybrid car. About 28 kilograms (~ 62 pounds) of rare earths go into a hybrid car. That is only a small fraction compared to the total weight, but it is a very important fraction.

Another now ubiquitous device, the cell phone, is chock full of rare earths. The glass is harder, and the speakers and memory are lighter, and the vibrating motors stronger – all due the rare earths.

So what’s the big deal about rare earths? The big deal is that currently China controls 97% of the market on these elements which are so important to modern society and even more importantly to a modern military. Our military is dependent on a foreign power for a strategic material. There are exploitable deposits of rare earths in the United States, but are not mined because of costs.

Efforts are being made to bring the cost of mining and processing of the rare earths down which could make our sources more attractive. That said, applying the same techniques to the richer Chinese deposits will make their materials correspondingly cheaper also.

tesla battery

Batteries for the Future – Now

A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times (about food) gave a hat tip to the Sierra Club and their Beyond Coal campaign – an effort to close all coal fired power plants by 2030. The point of the piece was the necessity of activism and organizing around a particular issue.

Since the inception of the program in 2010, no new coal plants have been built and 188 closed or planned to close in the near term. Currently just of under 40% of the electric generation capacity in the United States comes from burning coal, but the number is falling – replaced by natural gas plants and a mix of wind and solar.

As long as intermittent energy, wind and solar, constitute a small fraction of the total electric supply, grid operators can balance the load as needed by reducing power from the coal plants. But what about when the coal plants are gone? What do we do when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing?

There is no doubt that there is enough solar in the Southwestern US or wind the Midwest to power the nation, but storage and transmission is a controlling factor to the use of these clean sources of energy. Tea party types are resisting transmission lines on the basis of property rights and governments in conservative states are making small scale renewable energy less attractive to protect their power companies’ turf.

When one thinks of energy storage, explicitly electrical energy, batteries are it. Enter Elon Musk, billionaire entrepreneur and builder of the Tesla Electric car. More important than the electric car are the batteries that power them, at least that is what Mr. Musk thinks. He has recently gone into the battery market, not only for his cars, but for stationary applications. He introduced a 10 kWh battery that can be used for a myriad of applications.

For a home owner this means “behind the meter” storage. Obviously off the grid folks rely on batteries but even grid-tied homes can utilize storage for weathering storms when the grid goes down. Folks with grid-tied renewable energy systems can utilize storage. Some power companies have time of use metering, that is the cost of power varies as to when it is used. If a home owner has a storage capacity, S/he can chose to sell power back to the grid when the price is higher. Even without a renewable energy supply, home owners with storage can charge batteries during the night when rates are lower, then sell power back to the grid during the day, making a profit in the exchange.

Utility scale storage can be beneficial right now. Battery storage can be added incrementally to defer transmission and distribution line upgrades as demand grows. Batteries can be used to back up temporary shortages due to short term power plant outages. Not to get too far down in the weeds on these issues, suffice it to say the Batteries will play a huge part in the future of clean energy supplies.

This something we should all strive for. We will get away from burning stuff for power, and batteries will make this more practical.


Attitudes on Global Warming

Yale University has for a number of years operated a climate change research project. The project studies not only the cause and implications of global warming but also the attitudes of Americans towards related issues. They have “attitude maps” with a resolution down to the county level.

Not surprisingly, it appears that attitudes break out on liberal/conservative lines. In locales that voted for conservative candidates, acceptance of the reality of anthropogenic global warming was lower than in those locales where votes tilted toward liberals.

Although most Americans,63% [55% for Pope County] believe global warming is happening, only 48% [42%] believe it is man-made. In Arkansas Pulaski, Bradley, and Chicot are the only counties where a majority believe human activities are causing the warming.

Among residents of Pope County, 52% believe that global warming will harm future generations. Nationally 61% share the opinion. A super majority of the citizens of the United States, 74% believe we should regulate CO2 . In Pope county the figure is 68%. The majority opinion disappears when the public is asked about a particularly effective regulatory mechanism – a revenue neutral, refunded to the public, carbon tax. Only 44% [42%] would support a carbon tax.

Interestingly even though a majority of the citizens of Arkansas favor regulating carbon emissions, we enacted legislation last month to frustrate implementation of regulations on CO2, and our attorney general has joined with 11 other attorneys general to sue the Environmental Protection Agency’s over the regulations. The people of Arkansas believe one way but our elected officials act another.

There is a dramatic difference when the attitudes of the general public and the scientific community are compared. As noted earlier only 48% of average Americans believe global warming is man-made. Among scientists that number is 87 % (from a recent poll by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS). This is a clear consensus yet the public believes otherwise. Only 44% answered yes to the question, “do most scientists believe global warming is man-made?”

The discrepancy is likely due to efforts by fossil fuel industries to spread confusion. It is an effective yet scurrilous method championed most prominently by the tobacco industry. For decades the tobacco industry was able to put off any regulation by stating that the risks of smoking were unsure, or that there wasn’t a consensus among scientists about the connection between smoking and lung cancer.

A common technique is to covertly fund “independent” scientists who do biased work. Willie Soon, an astrophysicist who published research intended to downplay human influence on global warming was funded to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars by fossil fuel industries. His source of funding was not disclosed. This conflict of interest is at a minimum a violation of ethical standards.

“Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect… “ Johnathan Swift