Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jumping From the Pan Into the Fire?

I read something recently that I didn't know, hadn't thought of and frankly scared the heck out of me. We have been focusing more on energy independence from oil recently to get awy from having to deal with one entity holding all the strings, namely the Middle East. So we have instead slowly shifted our attention to things such as hybrid/electric vehicles, windmills and such. These things give off warm and fuzzy feelings judging by the way everyone talks but when you peer a little deeper into this, well I'm scared. You see hybrid/electric vehicles, windmills and anything else with a generator that converts motion to electricity employ the use of lots of light magnets. These light magnets are made of rare earth materials that really aren't rare but are hard to mine due to radiation and finding them in sufficient quantities to make mining feasible. From the 40's until the 80's, almost all the world's supply of rare earth materials came from a single mine in California. Then in the 80's, another country discovered a giant supply that is now compared to the oil weath of the Middle East. Because of the tight environmental regulations of California, this new country now supplies most of the world with cheap rare earth materials used to build magnets. What country is this you ask? Ah, now this is the scary part so hold onto your seat. China is the answer. Think about that before you go and purchase your next Toyota Prius.

9 comments:

R. Sherman said...

I read recently that there is a company making beaucoups dough in north Missouri with wind farms, the bulk of which money comes from federal subsidies, inasmuch as it's not consistently windy enough to generate enough juice to pay the bills. Surprise! The company is owned by the son of a former Democrat governor of the state and the brother of a U.S. Congressman on the House Energy Committee.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Rare earth magnets. Should I start wringing my hands over 'em? Sounds like something thAt a geeky engineer type might worry his pretty lil head over. Is Walmart involved? If the Chinese have the monopoly on this stuff then their partners at Walmart MUST be cooking up some foul rare earth maggot brew too. (pulling your chain man, but then, you knew that...)

Sage said...

Okay, I ain't the engineer here, but you don't have to have magnetized metals to build a generator, do you, can't you create the magnet force with coils of wire? Of course, there is always a danger when there is a limited resource and when you can control that one resource you had some advantages (and disadvantages as it makes you lazy and less ingenious)

Ed Abbey said...

R. Sherman - I've always wondered how do I get up into the ranks of the corrupt and powerful.

Philippines Phil - It sounds like we still have a big supply in that California mine so I guess I'm not too worried... yet. Like oil, I kind of like to sit on our reserves for the time being and utilize every other country's reserves until they are depleted and/or they give us the boot. Glad to have you back pulling my chain!

Sage - You are correct but here is the catch. Coil motors need a continuous flow of electricity to induce a force to spin the rotor. Rare earth motors require just an initial shot and then nothing making them extremely more efficient and much much lighter than the old coil motors and thus why they are used in high efficiency situations. We could go back to coil motors if China screwed us over but it would take a lot of time, money and figuring out how to make a heavy inefficient motor work in these new applications that need the efficiency and light weight.

Ron said...

I am always amused by people whose idea of "being green" is driving a Prius around. Their voice drips with condescension and self-righteousness as they tell me that they care about the Earth. I try not to chuckle until I'm out of earshot. One of these days the frugal/green fad will blow over and be replaced by another one... in the meantime, it creates opportunities for those who adapt and capitalize on the changes.

Ron

Ed Abbey said...

Ron - Although I do think it is PC these days, I don't think it is a fad in the sense that it will fade away completely to the way it was before. I think electric/hybrid vehicles are here to stay until nuclear fusion driven cars/planes become mainstream

Frank D. Myers said...

Call me shallow, but I don't like the look of wind farms --- and there are a number of them in north Iowa, the latest (and largest) just begun on both sides of Highway 65 south of Hampton in Franklin County. From a distance (viewed from I-35 for example), the farms are interesting. Close-up, the windmills and their service roads cut the land into strips, clutter by dominating the landscape and sky and make otherwise nice looking farmsteads seem as if they've been dropped into an industrial park. It also seems to me it takes too many many windmills to produce worthwhile energy and I'd also like to know how much of the investment is taxpayer subsidy and how much private. Maybe it all will be worthwhile in the long run, but I remember the promise of nuclear, then solar, both largely faded by now in part because of fright (nuclear) and indifference (solar).

TC said...

I always find this "Going Green" discussion to be interesting, as often times these things actually are hurting the environment in the making more than what they are supposedly replacing.

Beau said...

One of these years someone will discover a new energy source that will revolutionize the world's energy needs. Until then, folks will do what they think can make a difference along the way. I'm more afraid of the cap and trade programs and the fast-track of health care and how that's going to affect the financial picture moving foreward. Hopefully we won't be so wrapped up in the PC aspects, and instead will think carefully about real impacts.