There is something very important that most people don’t know about renewable energy technologies. While many of these technologies have existed since humanity started to harness the power of the wind and the sun to help us do work, they all owe their current capabilities to the existence of rare earth elements.
Neodymium, dysprosium, lanthanum, cerium sound like the names of some magical characters in Peter Jackson’s latest Tolkien adaptation but they’re actually the names of rare earth elements. Rare earth elements and a handful of other elements (like lithium and platinum) are the “magic” ingredients that make our modern renewable energy technologies possible.
- Neodymium is secret sauce that makes high-power permanent magnets a reality. Those magnets are what allow a wind turbine to convert the power of the wind into electricity.
- Dysprosium allows these permanent magnets to operate at the high temperatures critical for the operation of large wind turbines and electric vehicles.
- Lanthanum and Cerium are what make catalytic converters work.
Your cell phone, your LCD screen, your hospital’s PET scanner all depend on the existence of rare earths.
Some argue that the name “rare earths” is a misnomer because these elements are found in large quantities on virtually every continent. But unlike a lot of ores, rare earth metals are typically found in very low concentrations, mixed with others metals and metalloid compounds. This makes them hard to mine and refine.
The problem is that unlike the magic ingredients in your recipes, “a little dash won’t do ya” in renewable energy technologies. A single large wind turbine (rated at about 3.5 megawatts) typically contains around 600 kilograms of rare earths. This means that if we really want to move away from fossil fuels as an energy source, we will need tremendous amounts of these rare earths.
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