Rare earth ‘critical’ for U.S. wind offshore projects — study

Source: David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, April 8, 2019

The U.S. government’s plans to grow a domestic offshore wind industry will rely on huge amounts of a rare earth mineral produced almost exclusively in China, according to researchers from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

The mineral in question, neodymium, is a key ingredient in magnets that help hardy offshore turbines generate electricity. It also goes into the motors that propel some electric vehicles, like Tesla Inc.’s Model 3.

About 20% of the industry’s need through 2050, the researchers said, could come from reusing magnets pried out of decommissioning turbines. Policymakers should start thinking now about ways to encourage that kind of reuse, in addition to more labor-intensive recycling, according to the study published in Nature Sustainability last week.

“Wind power is often posed as a greenhouse gas emission mitigation option, yet from a global perspective, the constrained supplies of rare earth metals required for large-scale offshore wind turbines seem increasingly likely to provide limits to offshore wind power and rare-earth metal applications in the coming years,” the study said.

Under the Energy Department’s industry scenario for 2050, which envisions 80 gigawatts of offshore wind, developers will require about 15.5 gigagrams of neodymium, said the Yale researchers. That’s enough to supply the equivalent of 20 million hybrids and EVs.

The magnets’ life span far exceeds that of the turbines, meaning they could be easily repurposed if they were designed as reusable modules, said Tomer Fishman, a co-author and former postdoctoral student at Yale who is now a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel

“It would save lots of resources and time,” he said. “Their quality doesn’t deteriorate.”

Fishman wants to shift the emphasis from mining — extracting raw materials — to recycling. But as the sector keeps growing, there is still going to be demand for neodymium from mining.

“So just recycling within the wind sector would not be enough,” Fishman said.

As offshore turbines are just beginning to come into use, and with EVs still in the early stages of adoption, governments could get ahead of the curve now: incorporating reuse as a condition of wind farm approval, for example, and focusing on scaling up recycling technologies.

“It seems like the big growth is still ahead of us,” said Fishman. “We have the opportunity to get it right this time.”

It comes as interest deepens — at some levels of government, industry and academia — in how the energy transition will shift demand toward certain minerals used in renewable technologies — and potentially rebalance the geopolitical landscape.

The study doesn’t consider if, or how, offshore wind developers in the United States should reduce their dependence on neodymium. Nor does it touch on whether China’s control of global production poses complications.

“That’s a question we did not really look at,” said Fishman.

But it emerges from a series undertaken by the Critical Materials Institute, an Energy Department lab that researches solutions for minerals deemed “critical” for reasons that include the geopolitical, economic and environmental.

Last spring, the Trump administration included that family of minerals in a list of commodities considered critical to national security — though neodymium was not specifically named.

China produces rare earths for use in everything from smartphones to hard drives and EVs. Its clout in the sector was underscored in 2011, when it briefly halted exports to Japan over a diplomatic dispute and prices spiked.

“Since then, there has been a lot of research on how to avoid supply risks,” said Fishman. And the Critical Materials Institute was founded not long after.

“I think that was when the Department of Energy and other government institutes realized that this is a potential issue,” Fishman said.