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23 Comments

  1. Interestingly, you can see this on Google Earth, including the pretty fifthly plants to the North and East of the lake. So much for “green” approaches to energy solutions.

  2. @arcs_n_sparks – can you provide the lat-long coordinates so I can “fly over” for a visit?

  3. I have a followup question with regards to this article. Now, on the one hand, I believe, Nuclear plants *also* need rare earths, and in particular, neodymium (sp?) to make magnets for the generators in a nuclear plant as well. On the other hand, it might be that nuclear plants need a lot LESS? So, basically, my question is, are nuclear plants able to generate more power with less rare earth elements, by having their turbines spin faster, or by having larger/more efficient turbines?
    Or, is it the case that to generate a GWe of power, you need the same amount of rare earths, whether you build lots of small wind turbines, or a few large steam turbines? If we have a nuclear renaissance where maybe a thousand or two thousand nuclear plants are built world-wide, how will the consumption of rare earths from that enterprise compare to building lots of windmills?
    I think it’s important to recognize that, A) in this regard, the fault isn’t windmills, but the way the Chinese government and the businesses involved in this industry are going about their business, and that B) to whatever extent nuclear plants need those same rare earths, we don’t try to pretend like our sh*t doesn’t stink too.

    1. Jeff – I am going to have to do some research, but my understanding of the kind of generators used in traditional steam turbines is that they are somewhat less electrically efficient and use more common materials like steel and copper. The use of rare earths becomes more important as you stretch for the last few percent of efficiency.
      Part of the issue with the Chinese production of rare earths is that they are taking short cuts in order to under price the competition. Mongolia is not the only place in the world where the materials can be mined, but it is the place where people seem to be allowed to simply and cheaply dump the residues without having to spend much time or resources on proper disposal.
      I will never say that our “stuff” does not stink a little, but it stinks quite a bit less than any alternative, especially when measured on a per unit output of stink.

    2. @Jeff – the Wikipedia entry on electromagnets is also quite useful for understanding the difference between permanent and electromagnets and why people who design and build wind turbines prefer to use permanent magnets in their generators. One of the big keys is that electromagnet generators need to have power available to “flash” the field every time they are started up – that can be an issue for turbines that depend on the weather.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnet

      1. Do they actually use electromagnets in “traditional” electric generators? I had thought about that once, during a physics class, but then I wondered if, using electromagnets, you would end up significantly reducing your power outputs vs using permanent magnets. I didn’t really have enough info to answer the question, but it occured to me that the situation might be a little bit like sitting on a chair (which can passively hold up me weight through structure), vs. squatting in ‘seated’ position, where I would constantly have to apply energy to my muscles to keep myself up. Of course, that is probably a terrible analogy, I don’t know. Can you actually get significant net power, when using part of the power to energize electromagnets to sustain the generation?

        1. @Jeff – the amount of current required to establish a magnetic field is a tiny percentage of the current that is produced by rotating that magnetic field in the presence of conducting coils. Yes, electromagnets are the standard in power producing turbines. Permanent magnets are used in a very narrow slice of applications.

          1. Rod Adams wrote:
            @Jeff – the amount of current required to establish a magnetic field is a tiny percentage of the current that is produced by rotating that magnetic field in the presence of conducting coils. Yes, electromagnets are the standard in power producing turbines. Permanent magnets are used in a very narrow slice of applications.
            This is true. Also, having control of the magnetic intensity of the rotor of a generator allows better control relative to the grid, i.e., voltage regulation and reactive power correction. On more modern wind turbines, these two functions are done with electronics. It could be done with electronics on large conventional power plants, but would be very expensive to do it that way. Also, there is loss in such electronics, probably more than is lost in “exciting” the rotor of a generator at (say) a nuclear plant.
            Electronics are used on modern wind turbines in order to extract the most power from the wind by allowing variable turbine (and thus generator) speed, and to allow the wind turbine to do at least some voltage regulation and reactive power correction. Contrast this to a steam or hydro plant where the turbine and generator are optimized to be most efficient at the single RPM at which they spin.

    3. The reason newer, better Wind Turbines use loads of Rare Earth magnets, is in order to replace the unreliable, extremely heavy gearbox. It’s not uncommon to have every gearbox in a Wind Farm fail during the first year of operation. Minimum charge of $100k to bring in a crane to replace them. In a typical Wind Turbine the Synchronous AC Generator weighs 5 tons and the gearbox 20 tons. Permanent Magnet Synchronous Motor/Generators are low speed machines. They are great for wheel hub motors in E-Bikes and EVs. They are also high efficiency and low weight. So a 3.5 MW Wind Turbine with a PM Generator uses about 2000 kg of Rare Earth Magnets. And run asynchronously, through an Inverter, they operate more efficiently at a variable speed, depending on Wind Velocity.
      Much more important to save the Rare Earth Magnets for E-Bikes and Electric Vehicles. A much better environmental benefit.
      All six 5 MW wind turbines in the Alpha Ventus Offshore Wind Farm suffer gearbox failure two months after installation:
      http://canadafreepress.com/index.php/article/30586

    4. I think some of this negative spotlight on the industry in China is a backlash from their announcement that they are cutting back on global supply (95% of global supply comes from China). China is a known bad actor when it comes to environmental regulations, but there is hypocrisy by wind industry here too. The wind industry should be working towards more responsible and less polluting sources for REEs, even if they are expensive (Mountain Pass, or elsewhere). Consumer electronics, TV displays, batteries, glass and ceramics industry, oxygen sensors, engines, nuclear industry (“rare-earth elements are used in the nuclear industry in control rods, as dilutants, and in shielding, detectors and counters), and more use these materials (they are not exclusive to wind industry).
      The New York Times had a similar piece:
      http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/30/business/global/30smuggle.html
      China rebutted with new regulations and tougher industry standards:
      http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2011-01/07/content_11807062.htm
      But perhaps a better approach (besides different mines and better environmental controls) may be this (recycling RREs from the industrial waste stream):
      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091215101708.htm
      Nuclear re-processing is also an important source of rare-earths (here’s another example where different industries may support each other by more effectively using all of the resources, public will, common interests, and opportunities at hand).

      1. @EL – so, the investigative reporters are simply part of a political backlash? Would you feel differently if you found out that the residents of the area described were indigenous people?

          1. I’m actually in favor of the proposed rare earth mine in the Northwest Territories of Canada (hopefully with some profit sharing, good training programs, and jobs for local First Nations).
            Avalon – Thor Lake (Nechalacho)
            It’s reported to be “one of the largest rare earth deposits in North America” (here).

  4. This article validates nearly everything we have been saying about Wind and Solar for the past several years. The effects of mining are dangerous and if not handled correctly disastrous. I would much prefer to have that mining done here in the USA where regulations can protect the workers and the rest of the environment. Opposition to Uranium mining in the USA is strange to me. We can take it from the ground safely and we can return the spent fuel to the ground safely.
    Also, please notice that the exact conditions I had speculated about in a previous comment are documented as having taken place on December 20th. Very cold weather and about 5 GW (5,000,000,000) of capacity produced only 140 MW (140,000,000) of output. Life is good when you are living with the rhythms of nature.

  5. The high cost of wind turbines is obvious just considering their size: In most cities they would be taller than even high rise office buildings. How can it be economical when they can’t even power those office buildings?

  6. The article in the MailOnline is very good. It even seems to be fairly ballanced.
    I did like the graphic comparing the different types of energy and the fact that it shows nuclear as being just as low as wind for CO2 generation at 5 gm per kWh.
    The Google view is pretty impressive, just putting “Baotou, China” in the search bar will get you there, the lake can be seen just southwest of the city. The factories to the north and east of the lake look like something out of Mordor from the Lord of the Rings.

  7. One slightly dismaying aspect of the Daily Mail article is its use of the R-word:
    … Rusting pipelines meander for miles from factories processing rare earths in Baotou out to the man-made lake where, mixed with water, the foul-smelling radioactive waste from this industrial process is pumped day after day…. Jamie Choi, an expert on toxics for Greenpeace China, says villagers living near the lake face horrendous health risks from the carcinogenic and radioactive waste …
    Doing some googling, the main neodymium ore appears to be monazite, which is also a principal ore for thorium. The Chinese probably use an old, crappy acidic process. From the wilipedia monazite page:
    <blockquote>The original process for “cracking” monazite so as to extract the thorium and lanthanide content was to heat it with concentrated sulfuric acid to temperatures between 120 and 150

  8. Whenever you see the phrase “Exceptional Investigative Reporting by the Daily Mail”, you can’t help but assume that the only part which isn’t sarcastic is, perhaps, the ‘y’ in ‘by’. See, for example, Dan and Dan’s Daily Mail song, or google for “daily mail cancer”. To find an article which puts the Daily Mail in a good light is causing me some severe cognitive dissonance.
    Fortunately it is a widely-read tabloid over here, so this article will reach quite a few eyes.

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