Let me begin this blog on the tough job of rare earth mining with a few rhetorical questions. To what extent does sustainability matter to you? Do you consider the source or production processes involved in, say, your refrigerator when putting groceries away, or what about when buying electronics such as a new cell phone or computer?
According to figures mentioned in a recent presentation by Molycorp, a rare earth mining and downstream processing company, 61% of respondents from a study on good practices stated that a company’s sustainability policies matter to consumers and are important or very important to them. Although that percentage doesn’t necessarily reflect purchasing trends, I would like to think I’d be in this group (I source locally and organically more often than not), but I don’t often think about the materials that make up my cell phone or my new washing machine.
Those ideas are changing after attending the Argus Americas Rare Earths Summit 2015 in Las Vegas last week. During the event, Molycorp discussed sustainability and transparency in rare earth supply chains and maintained that consumers, for the most part, care about legitimacy in these processes. And they should because, as I’ve learned, rare earth elements (REEs) are found in a variety of appliances and electronics, including direct-drive wind turbines—those that use permanent magnets in their generators.
Let me digress for a moment and explain how the wind industry is involved here. A direct-drive turbine is initially a more expensive, but also a more reliable and lower maintenance option to a turbine because it eliminates the gearbox. The rotor and generator turn as an integrated unit, with the direct-drive generator built with a larger diameter for sufficient generator-rotor speed. The turbine gains greater reliability without the churning (and maintenance) of a gearbox. Much of the benefit in direct-drive turbines comes from the use of permanent magnets in the generator, which are comprised of rare earths elements.
Although not particularly rare, REEs are a group of chemical elements found in the earth that are used in many modern-day applications, such as in computers, solar panels, LED lights, and even in medical devices and some equipment necessary for national defense. Check out a periodic table to see if you can find the 17 that make up these rare earth elements.
Now back to mining. REEs have proven difficult to mine because it’s challenging to find them in concentrations high enough for economical extraction. Just ask Molycorp. The only U.S. producer of rare-earth elements used in high-tech and industrial products recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection though has since signed a restructuring agreement with its key creditors.
I was lucky enough to tour their Mountain Pass facility in California with a host of geologists, scientists, engineers, and government officials, during the Argus Americas Summit, and it’s not difficult to imagine the staggering costs to run the mine and do so ethically. Numbers around the $3-billion per year mark were tossed around by some on the tour. Molycorp debt stands at $1.7 billion.
According to Molycorp, Mountain Pass deposit is in a 1.4 billion year-old “Precambrian carbonatite intruded into gneiss” (the type of ore deposits) and contains 8 to 12% rare earth oxides mostly contained in the mineral bastnasite. Neodymium (Nd) is one element used in magnets for wind-power generators, which is extracted from bastnasite (this is where the periodic table helps).
Although Mountain Pass once dominated global REE production, times abruptly changed after an environmental disaster in 1998 halted production (radioactive wastewater from the mine flooded a nearby lake; read more history on the company here), giving Chinese companies enough time to swoop in and win over the rare earth market—though not in the most ethically or environmentally sound manner.
China is well known for illicit rare earth mining and cheap REE production, and the country’s officials admit it. According to REE field expert Professor Dudley Kingsnorth of Industrial Minerals Company of Australia, China acknowledged just last year that 40% of its supply used in high-strength magnets is still from illegally mined sources in the country.
What continues to attract buyers is that much of the post-REE production for related metals and magnets is also done in China with its low-cost labor (some processing is also done in Japan). This suggests that the U.S. is completely missing a link in the supply chain to produce a final magnet product. There would be no lack of interested consumers in North America. Customers would include motor and generator manufacturers, as well as turbine producers such as Siemens.
During a presentation at the Argus Americas Summit, Siemens’ Head of Special Projects in the Wind Division, Alexander Pulkert, said the company is currently researching a magnet alternative for direct-drive turbines that doesn’t incorporate rare-earth elements, and they are currently working to eliminate the “heavies.” REEs are subdivided into “light” and “heavy” depending on their electron configuration. The heavies are more rare and more costly.
For those in the REE industry, this might one day soon equate to a lost client, which can’t be good news for those mining and processing the materials. But there is strong pressure from those in the industry for change. In response, an ISO initiative was recently proposed by China (yes, China) for REE mine standardization and waste procedures. ANSI (American National Standards Institute) expressed interest (receiving comments by July 10, 2015) and Molycorp has selected some key global customers to, hopefully, work through a collaborative process.
History and financial setbacks aside, Molycorp’s Mountain Pass today serves as quite the environmental example of stewardship at least as far as mines go. The facility now has some 37 regulators that must answer to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), the ISO (International Organization for Standardization), and the Environmental Protection Agency, which isn’t always an easy crowd to please.
Along with ethical mining process, Mountain Pass hosts a combined heat and power (CHP) plant that feeds low-cost power and steam to its facilities. It uses processed wastewater to produce hydrogen chloride (HCl) and other chemical reagents used in rare earth production. Even the odd onsite solar panel helps with some basic electrical needs.
I’d like to pretend mining isn’t necessary, from an ecological standpoint, and that renewable energy could solve all of our power needs without environmental impacts. But I know that is not entirely true. The visit to Mountain Pass reminded me of three important things: knowledge is power (next time you text a friend or open your laptop, thank its rare earth elements), sharing is caring (sustainability in any industry has to be a transparent group effort), and conduct counts (your choice as a consumer impacts the economy and our environment…so choose wisely).
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