Rare Earth Minerals Are Undermining Your Sustainability Efforts - Turntide Technologies

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Rare Earth Minerals Are Undermining Your Sustainability Efforts

Jerome Pereira | Sustainability Share

Curbing climate change requires a two-pronged approach to sustainability: producing more renewable energy and decreasing energy consumption. Yet in our rush to address the greatest challenge of our time, humanity has in some cases traded one evil for another.

Nowhere is that dynamic more obvious than in some high-efficiency electric motors. This technology allows the same amount of renewable energy to power even more of the world. With the global population expected to grow from 7.8 billion people in 2020 to 10 billion by 2057, reducing energy demand per individual (without cutting services) is the only clear path to a truly net-zero carbon future.

For businesses, high-efficiency motors provide a rare opportunity to both cut carbon emissions and boost profitability.

Unfortunately, the production of the vast majority of permanent magnet motors (PMACs) takes a toll on our planet due to rare earth minerals: the dirty little secret of these technologies. Humanity must pursue alternatives that reduce further harm to the earth.

Rare Earth Minerals Come with an Extremely High Environmental and Humanitarian Cost
Rare earth minerals aren’t actually rare. However, mining these resources generates a tremendous amount of toxic waste, according to a study by MIT. Extracting rare earth minerals leaks acids, heavy metals, and radioactive elements into the surrounding land, contaminating crops, livestock, and groundwater.

The process is also extremely expensive. In countries like China, which controls 90% of the world’s production of rare earth minerals, the drive to keep prices low has historically overridden safety and environmental concerns.

According to a 2011 EPA report, in China, “not only are large quantities of harmful gas produced, alarming amounts of liquid and solid waste also resulted from Chinese refining processes,” and “with little environmental regulation, stories of environmental pollution and human sickness remain frequent” near its rare earth production facilities.

While standards have improved over the past decade, the consequences of producing these minerals are jarring. Even China’s State Council admits that rare earth operations have “severely damaged surface vegetation, caused soil erosion, pollution and acidification, and reduced or even eliminated food crop output.”

Cleaning up the damage already caused by the rare earth industry in Ganzhou, a city in the province of Jiangxi, China, will cost an estimated $5.5 billion. In Baotou, China’s “Capital of Rare Earth,” radioactive toxic waste has turned communities around the dam into “cancer villages.” Meanwhile, thorium, one of the two primary byproducts of the rare earth refinement process, has driven an increase in leukemia and other ailments in Malaysia.

Is this what your consumers and other stakeholders meant by “sustainable”?

Amid the push for more sustainable business practices, truly responsible companies must operate with our planet’s best interests in mind, honoring the spirit of sustainability in addition to corporate ESG standards.

Otherwise, our fight against one crisis will open the door for another.

A Single Country Controls the Financial Future of Your Business
Permanent magnet motors with rare earth minerals aren’t sustainable for your business, either. China holds a near monopoly on these materials, which allows them to dominate availability and pricing.

It also invites price volatility, with an issue in a single country cascading across entire industries. In 2010, for example, the price of neodymium spiked from $19 per pound to $283 per pound in less than a year largely because China restricted exports. This impacted everything from headphones to hybrid electric cars.

In response to the country’s monopoly power, a bipartisan piece of legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2022 would force defense contractors to stop buying rare earths from China by 2026 and use the Pentagon to create a permanent stockpile of the strategic minerals.

The financial and supply chain implications of this dynamic threaten to disrupt every company that relies on rare earth minerals. That was on stark display as recently as 2020, when COVID-19 crippled the already-vulnerable distribution network. Eighteen months later, without any other viable suppliers, companies are still dealing with extremely long lead times on new permanent magnet motors.

This period has also seen an increase in price volatility, both for the rare earth minerals themselves and the products that rely on them.

Between February 2021 and February 2022, the price of neodymium increased by 90%. And according to earth.org, reducing the toxic pollution from rare earths will require extraction and global mining standards that would make their production even more expensive.

But not all high-efficiency electric motors rely on rare earth minerals.

We Have a Clear Alternative: Switched Reluctance Motors
The good news is that, while prevalent, ECMs and PMACs are actually outdated technology. We already have better alternatives that provide IE5+ levels of energy efficiency without the use of rare earth minerals.

For example, Turntide’s switched reluctance motor doesn’t rely on rare earth minerals. Instead, our patented high rotor pole SRM uses reluctance force for torque production. These motors work by wrapping a coil of copper wire around magnetic steel to create an electromagnet, which then attracts the rotor made from the same magnetic steel each time the coil is energized.

The result: annual energy reductions of up to 57% compared to conventional induction motors, according to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Our engineers have further improved energy efficiency by pairing this breakthrough technology with cutting-edge software and controls. As a result, our customers have actually seen an average energy savings of 64% from their HVAC systems.

While meeting with prospective clients, our Sales team has heard complaints of more than 50-week lead times on rare earth-based motors. Free of the supply chain constraints of rare earth minerals, many of our “high-runner” motor SKUs are in stock and ready to ship today.

To learn more about Turntide’s high-efficiency electric motors, contact our Sales team at sales@turntide.com.