China’s dominates global production of “rare-earth minerals”, accounting for nearly 97% of total production. Since the summer, China has begun to restrict exports of these minerals, which are essential components of many clean energy and high tech devices.
These restrictions are troubling to say the least for the global clean tech industry, which fears a future of limited and pricey supplies. The United States and Australia have been investing in new mining projects to access domestic rare earths as a means to guarantee future supplies.
China’s restrictive actions have served as an “important wake-up call” on the importance of using raw materials efficiently. Many now-common products and manufacturing processes had originally designed when the supply of certain core materials were not at risk, says Steven Duclos, chief scientist at General Electric’s global research center.
The blanket assumption of secure future supplies of rare earths, as well as other integral minerals, has now been proven wrong. GE for example is working with the U.S. Department of Energy to reduce the amount of rare earths required in building wind turbines by 80%. When you consider that each commercial wind turbine uses about 1 ton of rare earths, “an 80% reduction goes a long way to solving the problems,” says Duclos. Read more…