Ways through the rare earth element bottleneck

It has never been so important to find ways to overcome the barriers of dependency on rare earth elements for the renewable energy transition.

At a time when we have an urgent need to accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources, the accessibility and sustainability of the materials used in this transition are vital. The wind industry’s reliance on expensive, supply-constrained rare earth elements has created a challenge to rapid progress. It is of great importance to find sustainable and fair solutions and not let this reliance create a bottleneck in the deployment of renewable energy.

Europe has few or non-existent domestic supplies of the materials needed for the energy transition. Rare earth production is set to spread geographically as Europe reduces its dependence on China, which supplies about 90% of the world’s rare earth elements. The EU has targeted these materials as a top priority, as 98% of rare earth permanent magnets are currently imported from China.

In addition, developing an effective and systematic circular approach is essential to achieving a sustainable energy transition. Recycling the materials used will both increase the efficiency of the decarbonisation process and reduce reliance on material imports. In the next few years, recycling waste materials and second-life manufacturing will become a stand-alone business model that drives job creation1.

It is vital that these needs are reflected in EU policies that concern both rare earth dependency and circularity. According to internal market commissioner Thierry Breton the European Commission has an “ambitious” agenda for raw materials: “It combines more circularity and increased sustainable domestic production with reliable partnerships across the globe, which share our environmental and social standards.”

Under the REPowerEU Plan, the EU announced it would prepare a legislative proposal and intensify its work on the supply of critical raw materials.2 An EU-funded certification scheme using blockchain is being developed for rare earths to ensure that materials used to make magnets are not linked to toxic pollution. The system will set global standards for consumers demanding sustainable products. The Circular System for Assessing Rare Earth Sustainability or CSyARES is due to be ready in about three years, according to the Rare Earth Industry Association (REIA). The system will track rare earths using blockchain tokens, or digital passports, through the complex supply chain from mining to end-of-life. 3

Of the seventeen rare earth elements, the magnets in a wind turbine generator use about a ton of four of them: neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, and terbium. Permanent magnets are important as they make possible small, light, space-saving designs for the gearboxes of wind turbines. They also enhance low-voltage ride-through capability, thus improving a turbine’s capacity to remain connected to the grid. However, there is a technological innovation drive to find a substitute for these components.

Recently a milestone in developing a new, lighter, rare-earth-free generator solution has been reached. A new generator for offshore wind turbines that does not require the use of rare earth metals has been developed and approved. Over the past five years, UK-based GreenSpur Wind and Niron Magnetics, based in the US, have developed a rare-earth-free generator. The findings have been verified by ORE Catapult, the UK´s leading technology innovation and research centre for offshore renewable energy.

Earlier versions of the GreenSpur generator were criticised for their weight. Keeping generator mass within the same range as existing machines is crucial, as adding weight requires more structural support, which increases cost. By designing with Niron’s Generation 1 Clean Earth Magnet, which has significantly better magnetic performance than its earlier generator designs, GreenSpur has developed a new 15 MW generator. Based upon initial non-optimised results, the new generator delivers a significant 56% reduction in mass. This new technology for wind applications could enable a potentially transformative solution for the wind market’s dependency on rare earth elements.

Emilia Samuelsson

1Read more about recycling in the clean energy sector in Acid News 2021 #3.
2Euractiv, Different mentality needed on raw material domestic mining, says EU body, 25 May 2022.
3Euractiv, EU tests blockchain certification scheme for rare earths, EV batteries, 8 February 2022.

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