On Nature: Rare Earth Powerhouse

On Nature: David Voigts

One of the hindrances to the development of alternative energy is the shortage of rare earth elements such as neodymium and dysprosium that are essential in the powerful magnets used in wind turbines and electric vehicle motors. Currently, domestic production of these critically needed elements is small, and most are imported from China.

Being reliant on a foreign adversary for a key part of our energy future is a problem, but help may be coming from an unlikely source. According to an article in Grist magazine, the ash produced by coal-fired power plants and the waste products from coal mining contain these and other rare earth elements. While these elements only have been extracted from coal waste in a laboratory setting, the Department of Energy is funding research projects and constructing pilot plants in several locations to determine if this technology can be scaled up to be commercially viable while using environmentally friendly processes.

If “mining” coal waste for rare earth elements is successful, it would not only help alleviate the growing shortage, but it would help fund the cleanup of coal ash and coal mining waste storage sites and revitalize communities that have lost coal-based jobs. Let’s support this technology.

David Voigts is a retired ecologist and the current Conservation Chair for the Prairie Rapids Audubon Society. He is a Tama County native, graduating from Dinsdale High School, and lives in rural Jesup on his wife’s family farm.