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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Rare Earth Minerals

The central storyline in my novella Venus Inferno is the search for a rare earth mineral called Tellurium.

The premise is that new thermoelectric materials and improvements in energy storage and transportation have eliminated the need for fossil fuels, only to replace it with a growing demand for rare earth minerals.

I took pride in the fact that all of the major technology and concepts in Venus Inferno are real.

Ion drives are real. They are slow compared to chemical rockets but they do exist.

Tellurium is real. It really is one of the nine rarest minerals on earth and it really does fall as snow on Venus.

Thermoelectric Materials are also real. And tellurium - in the form of bismuth telluride and lead telluride - really is a working element of thermoelectric devices.

And now it appears that the shift from the need for fossil fuels to rare earth minerals is also real.

I came across an article in the Globe & Mail in late September about the delay in Chinese shipments of rare earth minerals to Japan. Once thing that caught my eye was this notable quote:

“In 1992, Deng Xiaoping, the nominally retired but still paramount leader of China, said that rare earths would be to
China as oil is to the Middle East. Estimates of the proportion of the world supply currently coming from China -
especially from Inner Mongolia - range from 93 to 97 per cent. “

There area couple of reasons why rare earth minerals are rare but the main one hindering their extraction in North America is that the deposits are small and extracting the minerals can produce radioactive waste.

Now another article claims that Chinese exports of these rare earth minerals to the U.S. and Europe are being delayed.

“… the secret embargo has widened to include the U.S. and Europe.”

This has major economic implications at a time when we can least afford it.

“The seventeen rare earths – elements like neodymium, dysprosium, and cerium – are crucial for the manufacturing of just about everything a modern economy relies upon…”

U.S companies are starting to arrange their own supplies but this can only be a short term solution. After all, there is a reason they are called ‘rare’. So perhaps it’s time to start looking past the ‘rare’ part and start looking at the ‘earth’ part.

After all,  tellurium really does fall as snow on Venus.

posted by David at 12:30 pm  

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