Inconvenient Truth – Rare Earths Roadblock

By Gerry Brady | Blog

May 02

The industrialized society we live in induces magical thinking. For example, many children (and many adults) have no idea where food comes from. In a rather brilliant article published way back in 2014 in the Sydney Morning Herald — 

“In 2010, as part of his Food Revolution, Jamie Oliver stood in front of a classroom of six-year-olds to find out if children really did know what fresh food looked like.

Holding up some tomatoes, Oliver asked: “Do you know what these are?” He was met with stumped faces until one boy shouted: “Potatoes!”

A recent national survey, commissioned by Woolworths, found that a third of Australian children struggled to identify fruit and vegetables, and were confused about where produce came from. The study, which surveyed 1601 Australian children aged between six and 17 years, revealed 92 per cent did not know bananas grew on plants.”

“Three-quarters of Australian children in their final year of primary school believe cotton socks come from animals and 27 per cent are convinced yoghurt grows on trees,”

“According to another survey, young adults in Britain are none the wiser.

The online poll, led by the charity LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), surveyed 2000 people aged between 16 and 23 years and found a third of them did not know that bacon came from pigs.

Researchers also found that four in 10 young adults did not know where milk came from, with 40 per cent of them failing to recognise the link between milk and a picture of a dairy cow.”

Reference —  Kids still don’t know where their food comes from

If the basic facts are unknown then there is a human tendency to revert to magical thinking to understand the world around us. Primitive tribes display this characteristic openly. It is best illustrated in the Cargo Cults that can emerge when the tribes see western goods for the first time. 

From Wikipedia on Cargo Cults — “During the age of colonialism, the colonial powers came in contact with many technologically less advanced societies. The first cargo cults were documented in New Guinea, and other countries of Micronesia, Melanesia and the West Pacific Ocean.

The people who are part of the cargo cults think that the cargo was created by their deities and ancestors. They think that the cargo was made for the members of the cargo cult, but the foreigners have it. For this reason, the efforts and rituals of cargo cults are done so that the foreigners should get less of these goods and the cult members more of them.

You may find that amusing but the people involved are simply reverting to magical thinking to try to understand the world around them.

Turning to the subject of climate change, we must all try to bring more common sense and fact based knowledge to the debate.

For example, many people seem to think that solar panels can provide sufficient energy to manufacture solar panels and that they last forever. However, we need blast furnaces and aluminium smelters to make solar panels and there is an economic reality to the long supply chain — all driven by oil based energies and coal. Solar panels do not fall from the sky and do not last forever. They will need replacement sometime within a 25 year time frame.

In regard to climate change, there is no real debate in the public arena about reducing economic growth, limiting energy use, switching our new money creation process away from the banking sector (which is completely reliant upon inflationary growth), ocean regeneration, grid energy storage solutions or the reality of a global population of 7.5 Billion people that needs to be housed, clothed and fed.

There is a continual reliance upon the magical thinking idea that some innovative technology can save us. Solar, wind, electric cars, lithium batteries, energy trading, shutting down coal are discussed at international conferences ad nauseum… to which everyone flies using jet aircraft that create 40% of our CO2 emissions. We simply do not want to give up our regal way of life. Nothing significant ever seems to eventuate from these conferences except more moral panic. The banking system continues on its merry way and the cult of economic growth is left unchallenged.

 On and on the arguments go but facts seem to be rarely discussed. Some say “the facts are settled” and refuse any further discussion. They appear completely satisfied with narratives. That stymies any further consideration of new facts.

The debate has become suffused with what appear to be semi-religious, moral and political motivations. Virtue signalling is rampant. The tendency towards catastrophic rhetoric is increasing. You will have noted the terms “Climate Collapse”, “Catastrophic Climate Change” and “Climate Breakdown” being  used more frequently. “The whole planet is under threat” is another.

So let’s just look at one key fact  that will impact very much on any plans to transition to alternative energy technologies — the availability (or not) of rare earth metals in the future.

What are Rare Earth Metals?

The first thing to know is that rare-earth elements are not rare. They can be found in many places on the planet however they need to be refined and that is where there is a catch. The refining process is a very toxic and environmentally damaging process. China dominates in refining rare earth metals. These critical metals are especially used in low-carbon technologies such as in solar panels, the electric motors of hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles and windmill turbines. Those products can include rare earth metals such as magnetic neodymium, electronic indium, and silver, along with lesser-known metals like praseodymium, dysprosium, and terbium.

A new scientific study supported by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure has warned that shortages in the supply of rare earth metals could be coming. The study is called METAL DEMAND FOR RENEWABLE ELECTRICITY GENERATION IN THE NETHERLANDS — Navigating a Complex Supply Chain.

The very first sentence in the Summary of the Report is shocking —  “Current global supply of several critical metals is insufficient to transition to a renewable energy system.” And the calculations made in the study only account for solar panel and windmill turbine production. It does not take into account the demand for rare earths in electric vehicles or consumer electronics. This means that any coming shortage could be much worse than anticipated in the report.  “Houston, we have a problem”.

More from the Report Summary — “The global energy transition requires a rapid and global rollout of renewable energy technologies. Safeguarding the supply of the required critical metals needs greater attention, since supply and demand cannot be guaranteed through a free market. Mining of the required ores takes place in a few select countries, and refining of these ores is concentrated in even fewer countries.”

“Geopolitical  powers  will  shift  from  oil-dominated countries to critical metal-dominated countries. A second important issue is the slow scaling rate for critical  metal  production:  opening  a  new  mine  takes 10 to 20 years and large capital investments, making it  difficult  to  meet  a  rapid  increase  in  global  demand with  a  comparable  increase  in  global  supply.  Mining corporations  require  a  global,  long-term  investment assurance to be able to fund new mining and refining activities.”

And more here — “The supply chain of critical metals is extremely complex.  Not  all  theoretical  reserves  are  technically (or  economically)  extractable, and  with ore  grades declining, mining requires an increasing volume of water and  energy.  Furthermore,  mining  is  often  associated with significant environmental and social costs”.

In 2017, China produced 81% of the world’s rare-earth supply, mostly in Mongolia, although it has only 36.7% of reserves. Why is that? Because it dominates the environmentally damaging refining process being responsible for 95% of that.  Australia is the second and only other major producer with a refining plant in operation in Malaysia.

Perhaps recycling can solve the problem? That sounds convincing but, at present, less than 1 % of rare earth metals are recycled and some are not recycled at all.

Facts are so inconvenient, aren’t they? The truth can hurt. This problem may well be the Achilles heel of any Utopian dreams concerning a proposed successful transition to solar energy or wind energy.

The closing remarks of the Dutch report should be chilling to the Transitionists  —  “As  future  demand  of these (rare earth) metals exceeds the expected supply, the energy transition becomes a vulnerable process.”


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