Rare Earths Add Supply Uncertainty, Environmental Impact to Clean Energy Production Chains
Rare earth metal shortages could slow down the shift to low-carbon energy, even as automakers scramble to reduce their reliance on elements that are currently essential to their production chains.
But for now, wind and solar technology as well as electric vehicles are dependent on elements whose supplies could run out in as little as 15 years, and that impose a heavy environmental burden on soil and water in the regions where they are mined.
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After Chinese geologists discovered a supply of medium and heavy rare earth elements (MHREEs) 50 years ago, “China replaced the U.S. as the biggest producer of rare earths, and Ganzhou rapidly became the world’s largest producer,” China Dialogue reports. In 2012, the Chinese government named the city, in the southeastern province of Jiangxi, “a ‘rare earths kingdom’, even though at that time its rare earth reserves were already almost depleted.”
Now, “a visit to the mines and industrial parks of Ganzhou gives no sense of a glorious ‘kingdom,’” writes correspondent Liu Hongqiao. “It’s a scene of devastation: crude open air mines and smelters, and rough muddy attempts at restoring the landscape. It’s a sight hard to associate with the environmental technologies that rare earths are used in.”
The country officially accounts for 85% of the world’s supply of rare earths, and China Dialogue says the tally goes higher after factoring in the black market for the materials. In Ganzhou, “over a decade of excessive extraction has left the surface water in the Zudong mining area, China’s biggest source of ion-absorption rare earths, with ammonia and total nitrogen levels far above safe standards, while groundwater is nowhere near up to minimum drinking water standards,” Hongqiao writes.
“In April 2012, a cross-ministry investigation headed up by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology found 302 abandoned rare earth mining sites in Ganzhou, with 97.34 square kilometres affected. It would take 70 years just to deal with the 190 million tonnes of mining waste left behind.”