British Geological Society to research rare earths in Sutherland
The news that the BGS is planning to research rare earths in Sutherland has produced a doom-laden article from the crusading blog ‘ForArgyll’ warning of the appalling environmental consequences of rare earth mining and extraction, which has devastated communities in China. China currently controls around 97% of the planet’s supplies of rare earths.
Neodymium magnets are vital components in a lot of renewable technologies. Huge neodymium magnets are used in direct drive wind turbines, with smaller ones essential for the manufacture of electric and hybrid vehicles. The use of rare earths is a common criticism made by opponents of renewable energy.
Before using rare earths as a stick to beat renewables with though it is worth remembering that we are all guilty participants in this filthy industry. Neodymium magnets appear in products such as microphones, loudspeakers, in-ear headphones (ear buds and hearing aids), guitar pick-ups and computer hard drives.
The largest rare earths mine outside China is owned by Molycorp in the US. Its neodymium is more expensive because it has to comply with a huge raft of environmental legislation. Yesterday (28/11/2011) its share price dropped 14% on the back of the announcement that China’s rare earth export quotas will not fall next year as previously thought.
The truth is that we are all complicit in the destruction of the Chinese environment. We can take these stances to make ourselves feel good, but for as long as we allow the ‘free market’ to control everything we do and behave as good (passive) consumers these problems will remain. If we do find exploitable depostis of rare earths in Scotland and we are not prepared to take the risk of producing our own neodymium then really we have to throw away our hi-fis, computers and smartphones.
Personally I would rather see the world’s cleanest, most expensive neodymium produced in Scotland and used purely by Scottish manufacturers. To enable this we have to create an economic system where environmental damage is a real cost, not one that is farmed out to the planetary commons and ignored.
It should be a question of ‘whatever it takes’ rather than yet another soapbox article written using neodymium-powered technology.