Of Dysprosium, Neodymium and Other Wrinkles

By Bill Moore

Posted: 27 Sep 2009

Early tomorrow morning, I climb aboard an American Eagle commuter jet for the hour flight to Chicago and then from there to Montreal, Canada where I have been asked to deliver the opening keynote speech at PHEV'09. At similar conferences, I have been on panels, even moderated them -- the most recent at Penn's Wharton Business School -- but this is the first time I've been asked to be a speaker, a keynote one at that.

As you can imagine, I am both nervous and excited. I've been thinking about what to say for weeks now and finally settled on the topic, "Are We Ready for 2012?" It picks up where I left off with "What's With 2012?", amplifying its points and noting the amazing level of progress we've made in just the last four years, as the above -- and admittedly-incomplete -- timeline shows.

But I also note that any number of "phenomenon" could derail, or at least slow down the pace of that progress, starting with resource availability. While much has been made about lithium reserves -- imcluding here on EV World -- especially those in South America, less well known is the fact that virtually all of the rare earth elements (REE) that goes into the electric motors and computer controls and steel and glass that make the modern electric drive vehicles possible comes from one single nation at the moment. China supplies 95-99% of the 15 elements classified as rare earth.

While the automotive world's attention was focused Frankfurt, where half of the new cars debuted where electric in one form or another, the Chinese government was circulating a proposal to begin restricting the explore of REE's.

The Times of London appears to be the first paper to pick up the story, reporting...

A senior member of Japan’s Rare Earth Metal Association observed that in a world before everyone had a mobile phone and wanted to drive fuelefficient cars, China’s rare earth monopoly was less meaningful -- now it has created a dominance of globally strategic importance. Others, particularly those within the Japanese automotive sector, believe that the rare earth metals will become the centrepiece of numerous international trade wars.

The document that has sent shockwaves through Japanese industry and government is a White Paper produced by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which proposes an export ban on rare earth metals including the particularly critical dysprosium.

Dysprosium is used in a cement inside nuclear reactors to absorb neutrons. It also is used in making lasers and is supposedly one of the most magnetic elements known. It belongs to the same rare earth family as Neodymium, also a key element in the powerful magnets in the electric motors used in everything from tiny iPods to Toyota Highlander Hybrids. China also holds a monoply on neodymium. The very fact that the paper is circulating in Chinese government offices has spurred decisions to open rare earth mines in Malayasia and Kazakhstan. Australia also has deposits, as does the United States, a single mine in the Mojave desert. As the Times notes, mining and refining REE is "is dirty, mildly radioactive and expensive."

The other possible "wrinkle" -- among others from horse-n-buggy era government policy to peak oil -- is one known as "embodied energy." This is the amount of energy it takes to fabricate materials like steel, glass, nanotubes and semiconductors. Surprisingly, there can be as much embodied energy in a handful of microprocesses that make a hybrid like my Prius as in the rest of the car. The energy required to create nanotubes and semiconductors can be as much as six orders of magnitude more than it takes to make a comparable amount of steel in the car. It could be the paradox of the 21st century that in order to be more energy efficient, we may have to use ever greater amounts of energy. Now that's a real mind-bender.

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