Editor’s Note, 9/11/2009: based on remarks in the comments section (some unnecessarily mean), it is clear that I made a mistake concerning the actual rarity of “rare-earth” materials. Although they are abundant in the earth’s crust, it is the fact that it is exceedingly difficult to find them in high enough concentrations to make mining them profitable that makes them a concern for being resource-limiting. I’ve edited my post to make that clear.
As an electric car nut, one of the most common quibbles I hear often revolves around the perception that if we do make a wholesale shift to EVs, we are just trading one foreign, limited-resource addiction (oil) for another (lithium).
But, as it turns out, there is no shortage of lithium. Our own Karen Pease has written thoughtfully about this in the past, and today there is news that a single lithium mine in Nevada could produce enough of the stuff on its own to make 650 million Nissan LEAFs or 1 billion Chevy Volts (my thanks to the commenter at the end of the post over at greencarcongress.com for doing those calculations). And that’s just one mine in Nevada — mines all over the world also contain vast quantities of lithium.
And we all went happily down the road to our EV future. Nope. Lithium-shmithium. We may not have a shortage of lithium, but we are likely bound towards a future with a shortage of EV materials that you’ve never heard of — things with odd names like dysprosium, lanthanum, neodymium, and terbium.
These rare earth metals, as they’re called, are a necessity to make the parts that make electric cars go — you know, such things as powerful magnets and battery additives. There’s a whole list of these types of rare earths that, although they are present in large quantities in the earth’s crust, they are exceedingly hard to find in high enough concentrations to make mining them profitable.
Unfortunately, the modern hybrids and electric cars we are demanding use lots of rare earths. In fact, the Toyota Prius is the single “biggest user of rare earths of any object in the world,” according to Jack Lifton, an independent commodities consultant and strategic metals expert. The Prius motor alone uses 2.2 pounds of neodymium and each Prius battery uses around 25 pounds of lanthanum.
Because of the global increase in demand, China, one of the largest suppliers of rare earths, has started limiting exports to keep the prices high (according to Reuters). The looming shortage has set off a veritable global hunt for new sources of rare earths. In California, a rare earth mine that had been closed is slated to be reopened in 2012.
In the short term the problem can be handled without issue, but unless we can find more sources of these rare earths, it seems that the shortage could lead to major problems later on if our demand outstrips the supply. Of course, battery and motor technology can and will change as time goes on, and perhaps we can find a solution that involves shifting away from using rare earths. But in the meantime, the whole thing has got me worried that we’re plunging headlong into another situation that we could have avoided.