Don’t Worry About Rare Earths

One of the latest objections to solar energy is the “Rare Earth” argument.


Like many computer products, from which solar panel technology is loosely derived, solar energy systems often contain Rare Earths.  There are 17 elements classified as Rare Earths. Rare Earths aren’t really rare. It’s just rare to find them in commercial-grade ore.

China has lots of Rare Earths, and as part of its export-oriented economic policy it has been keen to export them.  Until recently. Suddenly, for a variety of reasons (it’s dirty work mining it, domestic demand is soaring, they want better prices) China is cutting back its exports in this area. This has western analysts groaning, since China was allowed to gain a near-monopoly on this stuff  because prices were so low.

In fact, as noted, Rare Earths aren’t that rare at all. They’re in 14 states, although currently only Molycorp of California has approvals needed to open a mine, in the Mojave Desert. Knowing where its potential market lies, Molycorp now calls Rare Earths “Green Elements”. Doesn’t make them any cleaner to dig up and process, but it sounds sweet.

What we have here is a needless panic, created by a short-term market anomaly, intended mainly to discourage green investing.  And, as you’ll note at the top, wholly unnecessary.

Because researchers are already working hard on making Rare Earths redundant. Matt Law at the University of California in Irvine  has already done research indicating iron pyrite, sometimes called “fool’s gold,” may be able to replace Rare Earths in many green applications.

Law’s solution isn’t free. He proposes processing the metal into nanocrystals. And its future is uncertain. The efficacy of this isn’t proven yet.

But, again, Law’s is not the only lab working on the problem.

What gives me confidence for American leadership in solar energy is the fact that this is a fast-moving area, that we have the best labs and that we have imported some of the best minds in the world to run them (including Chinese minds).

Many of our research institutions have developed systems designed to speed research from the lab to the field, and on to the market. No matter how many engineers or entrepreneurs China has, it can’t yet match our incentives, our research environment, our venture capital networks, or the speed with which we can get from lab to market.

Is that a guarantee? No. But I’m placing my bet on America, and you should too.

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog,, in 2007.

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