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Scarce elements: a green reality check March 5, 2009

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.

I get daily business blurbs related to energy and the chemicals industries. One item today adds to my impression that theory really never can match practice (reality).

Wind power is touted as one of the green energy sources that has been virually untapped. In my area, the San Francisco Bay Area of California, has a large number in the region between the cities of Livermore and Tracy, the Altamont Pass region. But there are many others planned or dreamed of throughout the world.

The item this morning pointed out that these use the neodymium-iron-boron magnets – they are lightweight and more durable. But the neodymium needed is not there. The world’s mining capacity and current resources for neodymium are maxed out pretty much for current maget production and neodymium’s other uses in optics and materials.

Once again, a scarce element is being relied upon when scarcity has not been assessed well. Rare-earth ores are not plentiful. Their processing is more expensive than most ores because the elements behave so similarly. So where do we get twice or thrice as much neodymium?

Addendum: Another item later highloghted tellurium, which is used in flat-screen devices (I assume the plasma ones as opposed to liquid crystal ones). It is a by-product of copper smelting, but is in low amounts even then. There are only two long-term mines with rich deposits. Others on the horizon are short lifetimes deposits, mainly of bismuth telluride. So, once again, those “odd” elements in the periodic table that few people pay attention to are going to be noteworthy and their supplies will be bottlenecks until there are breakthroughs.



1. chemistKen - March 19, 2009

It’s becoming clearer that there are many elements that we may be close to running out of. In case you’re interested, I have posted about this on my blog too,


The thought is scary!

2. Rhenium - April 4, 2009

I remember seeing a similar article on slashdot. One commented mentioned that tellurium is produced by the tonne though electrolytic purification of copper, but even at $100,00 a tonne, it was economically viable to extract it.
Today’s waste heap it tomorrow’s mine…

3. fetzthechemist - April 4, 2009

That might the thing to do, go back to all of the slag heap areas from before trace-element extractions, which must be decades of operation, and dig up the old slag from copper, tin, gold, silver, and other bulk metal processing sites. The slag must be fairly enriched over the raw ores.

4. The Chemist - April 7, 2009

Hey! Aren’t you in the pocket of the petroleum industry? Stop whining and go take your hummer for a ride around the block. (Just kidding… of course)

It reminds me of Fritz Haber, who first successfully synthesized ammonia from air by using an osmium catalyst. He recommended to BASF that they buy the entire world supply of Os. The management was more than a little incredulous at the suggestion. Fortunately for everyone, the process was replicated using an iron oxide catalyst.

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