By on September 4, 2009

Now we know why China is at the forefront of alternative energy propulsion:

For oil, China is at the mercy of unstable places and easily disruptable shipping routes. The Middle Kingdom is the second-largest oil consumer in the world (behind the United States). China imports about half of its oil, making it the third-largest net oil importer in the world behind the United States and Japan.

When it comes to dysprosium and terbium, China is in a much better position, called a quasi-monopoly.

China controls more than 90 percent of the global output of the stuff. And what’s so special about dysprosium and terbium? You need it to make the permanent magnets used in electric motors or generators. Without dysprosium, the Prius is dead, and the Volt is deader than dead. The missile gap of the 60’s is nothing compared to the looming dysprosium gap.

China is getting quite possessive with the stuff. “China said supplies of dysprosium and terbium, minerals needed to make hybrid cars,” writes Bloomberg, “may be inadequate for its own needs, adding to concerns that the largest producer of rare earths may further cut exports.”

Dysprosium and terbium are rare earths. Rare earths are called rare earths because they are, well, rare on the earth. “The rest of the world has become a little concerned” about possible export bans from China, said Judith Chegwidden, managing director at London-based Roskill Information Services Ltd, an industry research group. “Dysprosium is increasingly used in hybrid cars like Prius or wind turbines. Demand is growing fast.”

China’s government started to curb output and exports in 2006. China may stockpile the rare dirt in a strategic reserve. Chinese exports of rare earths fell 35 percent in 2008 from 53,300 tons in 2006, all the while demand grows in areas of military defense, missiles, electronic information and green energy. China needs 70,000 tons of rare earths a year. They already cut 2009 output quotas of rare earths by 8.1 percent. They also encourage their industrialists to export processed products rather than just shipping the rare dirt abroad. Liang Shuhe, deputy head of foreign trade at the Ministry of Commerce said his government would “encourage exports of high value-adding, high-end products instead of the raw materials.”

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24 Comments on “Remember the Oil Crisis? Get Ready for the Chinese Dysprosium Crisis...”

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I thought that dysprosium was what Puthuff was trying to eliminate.

  • avatar

    I’m looking for the source, but I just read an article yesterday about how this crisis has been overblown.

    Most of the sources for these minerals is not in China, just that China has been producing them so cheaply, that most other producers stopped. The US had a major operation that ceased production in 2002, mainly because it couldn’t compete with China who basically offers no safety to it’s workers and has no mining rules to follow when it comes to the environment.

    From Reuters:
    But as Chinese production and exports grew through the 1990s, rare earth prices worldwide plunged, undercutting business for Molycorp, then owned by oil company Unocal.
    Mountain Pass operations came under further pressure after a 1996 wastewater spill. Mining there ceased in 2002 when Molycorp’s old permit expired.
    “Most companies that were in the business stopped producing because it wasn’t profitable anymore,” said James Hedrick, a rare earths specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

  • avatar

    The correct wording for this article should be;

    “You need it to make the permanent magnets used in some of the most efficient electric motors or generators.”

    We’re running out of all sorts of stuff. Oil, phosphorous, water even.

  • avatar

    It has taken over forty years of doomsday scenarios about the finite supply of oil for people to act like they’re concerned. I’ll wait until 2050 to see how this one plays out.

  • avatar

    Don’t let it all get you down, oh no. Don’t let it turn you around.

  • avatar

    Necessity is the mother of invention.

    Just got my Green Car Journal (magazine) at home the other day and in it was a microturbine hybrid from the UK, which obtains 80 mpg (imperial, no doubt).

    So, perhaps we’ll have to think outside the box a bit.

    How about a microturbine hydraulic hybrid?

    Turbines work best under full load, full throttle. The microturbine simply would cycle on and off as needed (or stay on full time, on the autobahn).

    The other advantage of the turbine is that it is the least fussy of all combustion engines pertaining to what liquid fuel it’ll burn. Using a ceramic regenerator would mean factories now building some catalytic convertors could be re-tasked (and bonus – no platinum or palladium or rhodium is needed).

    You can feed it E85, E10, unleaded gasoline, kerosene, B20, diesel fuel, heating oil, peanut oil, recycled McDonalds oil (filtered), Chanel #5, tequila…..

    If it is combustible and can be put through a pipe, it’ll burn – and burn cleanly.

    No rare earths needed. No expensive batteries needed.

    There’s always a downside (for Europe and Asia, mostly). The hydraulic pressure tank is rather large, better suited to larger vehicles (such as Americans, Canadians and Australians prefer).

    Thinking outside the box AGAIN, why couldn’t there be a 110 volt electric motor-generator on the end of the gearbox going to the hydraulic pump (since the turbine rpm’s would have to be reduced for the pump). This could act as the turbine starter and cycle on and off, obviously run by computer. There could be a 12 volt to 110 volt DC to AC inverter onboard and one deep cycle top quality lead-acid battery (not expensive).

    The car could be GPS equipped and in “going home mode” – could deplete the hydraulic tank, calculating for a 10% reserve, by the time the car gets home.

    This way, when you get home at night after work, you could plug the car into the 110 volt outlet and let the electric motor pump up the hydraulic pressure, taking some of the load off the turbine (and therefore the liquid fuel) the next day.

    Another advantage is this; if you find that the power happens to be out once you get home, no biggie. Plug it in anyway, and if the power stays off until the next workday, no worries – you can still get to work. The fuel in the tank simply starts the turbine and runs the car, slowly replenishing the tank for the necessary reserve.

    It’s not brain surgery. It’s just the will to think outside the box.

    Checks may be sent to…..

  • avatar

    @ menno : turbines etc, etc.

    You’re right, it’s not rocket science… or is it.

    I investigated micro-turbines recently out or curiosity and found one rather distressing design flaw. The turbines I found on the initial search had depressingly short maintenance schedules. The best I found was 500 working hours before factory rebuild.

    If you design for the worst case (f.u. 6sigma philosophy, I want me some reliability), lets say we need full usage for a 1 hour drive to work. That would mean 2 hours a day for 260 days a year… That turbine would need to be sent back to the factory once a year for a not so cheap rebuild. I would not want to risk running more time due to the velocity of the few moving components in a turbine… I’ve dealt with deflash machines that run extremely high rpms, blown bearings are no fun.

    Now, those were hobby turbines. If someone has a sturdier turbine out there, or the hobby turbine could be upgraded, I’d be interested. In the end, I would like to see a micro turbine with a maintenance interval up to around 3000 to 5000 hours… but I can’t even be sure that the big boy turbines on passenger jets get that kind of life before a major rebuild.

  • avatar

    I was under the impression that the most efficient motors were simple Variable Switched Reluctance motors, using simple copper and steel.

    VSRs can be run in alternator configuration as well.

    Is Toyota using permanent magnet motors/alternators to save weight?

    IMHO, if you can’t build it out of what you already have on hand, you will always be beholden to someone else. Case in point.

    This just emphasizes the fact that we need to crack the battery barrier. Then we won’t need to worry about the extra weight caused by using the easiest to get at materials (and you can substitute aluminum for copper, if you are having copper shortages — with a drop in efficiency, but not too serious of a drop).


    I don’t think fullsize gas turbines have such short lives, but I couldn’t find anything with a simple google. I think with such a short life though, commercial jets would be too expensive to fly!]

  • avatar

    One other point: once we have the Chinese cars with the metal inside, its ours at that point, we just recycle it. It’s not like oil: use once and not again :)

  • avatar

    I think the ironic point of the post is that it will always be something. If not oil, then rare earths, or uranium, etc. Someday soon it will be water, and Canada will become Saudi Arabia (until Jenna Bush, elected President in 2024, invades them!)

  • avatar

    Turbines are renowned for longevity as long as they are designed for what they are intended (i.e. not as toys or hobby items).

    The biggest downfall of automotive turbines (whether in a tank, or microturbine) is air filtration.

    But this is obviously now within reach since we could see in 1990-1991 how well the turbine powered American tanks did in the middle east.

    The 1963 Chrysler turbine engine, which came “thaaaat close” to production for 1966 (Dodge Charger – Turbo Charger, geddit?) apparently had a lifetime of about 100,000 miles, which was equivalent to reciprocating engines. No oil changes were necessary for 10 years (i.e. “ever”).

    The 1962 Chrysler turbine prototypes were called Plymouth Turbo Fury and Dodge Turbo Dart.

  • avatar


    Yeah, some things will be tougher than others. But in general, at least for the US, we will be in good shape in any scenario.

    Once the environmentalists are starving and don’t have transportation to go to rallies, they will have to come to the dark side, or be relegated to the side lines, then industry can plow forward again at full speed.

    I don’t buy any of the dystopian future models of how it will be. We are short nothing on this planet, except common sense at times.

  • avatar

    An existing turboshaft engine used in many helicopters is the GE T-58. For aircraft reliability levels it gets maintenance at 600 hrs new goals for upgrades are 900 hrs. Of course automotive reliability levels would extend the hours. However turbines are not efficient. They just have great power to weight ratios. Specific fuel consumption is not good.

  • avatar

    We are short nothing on this planet

    Ya think? If we need it, “God” will provide it.

  • avatar


    Turbines are efficient at full output, unless you are comparing them to the big ship diesels (in the realm of heat engines).

    A gas turbine is around 35% TE when operated at full power. Some of the biggest diesels built for containers ships are over 50%. Locomotive engines are in the low 40% range.

    Also, I am not sure I buy that a helicopter engine in representative of jet engines in commercial airliners. Helicopter engines are much more thermally stressed (they run continuously in the warmer part of the atmosphere), in an environment where dust and gravel is a real threat to longevity.

    Pete Moran:

    God or no God, what relevance did your comment have? There is plenty of everything. Nothing really leaves the planet except heat (radiated from burned fuel, natural radioactivity in earth’s crust). Water and air loss is negligible. It’s all here, humans just move it around. Finally, the heat loss we experience is no big deal: the big thermonuclear reactor in the sky provides plenty of power, we just have to figure out how to capture it.

  • avatar

    There is plenty of everything. Nothing really leaves the planet except heat…

    +1. The late economist Julian Simon wrote at length about the long term stability/decline in the vast majority of commodity prices. The only limiting factor is human inginuity. His work was instrumental in turning Malthusian population control-freaks into the equivalent of flat-earth geolgists.

    The Chinese may be shooting themselves in the foot here. With higher prices, new discoveries of rare-earths wouldn’t surprise me.

  • avatar
    Dr. Remulac

    @ menno:

    For small scale cogneration, microturbines lack the efficiency of old school reciprocating engines, so I’m not sure how they are more efficient for transport.

    Efficiency also degrades much steeper than recips in very hot weather.

    After thoroughly researching microturbines for applications my conclusion was their benefits were limited to their ability to burn many fuels as you stated and have cleaner emissions.

  • avatar

    Aqua225 and ihatetrees,

    You guys need to brush up on the laws of thermodynamics.

  • avatar

    Yep, Dr Remulac. Imagine the consternation at the Hugo Chavez owned Citco oil company (and others) if you could simply fuel your micro-turbine hybrid car with whatever liquid fuel was cheapest that week.

    Isn’t it Citco which bought up all the patents to the NiMh batteries so that electric cars would be delayed for decades or more?

    I’m pretty certain the Chinese are being very smart here (except that I always remind everyone about the law of unitended consequences which tends to bite the @ss of the human race regularly)

    They’re stiffed by an American government which is adding $1.7 TRILLION DOLLARS in debt in one year – which has no good results but only bad – and which will inevitably reduce the buying power of the God-only-knows-how-much-dollars the Chinese now hold.

    So the Chinese have been buying up any companies, resources, commodities, gold, silver and dumping dollars. Count on it, it’s true. They’re also busy trying to retain what they’ve got instead of selling it for more soon to be near worthless dollars. Smart, if you ask me.

    Plus add to the fact that they want to actually join the first world which means exporting high value products (such as electric and hybrid cars which require these rare earth materials – which China coincidentally has in abundance).

    Look at it this way; if Britain had pwned the young United States in the late 18th century, manufacturing would have largely stayed in Britain and America would have simply supplied raw materials to the mother country. This way, the wealth stays and grows “at home, old chap” (in Britain).

    Didn’t work out that way for America since we gained independence and used our own resources to manufacture and sell overseas, the Chinese are only looking to do the same thing.

  • avatar

    Helicopter engines are much more thermally stressed (they run continuously in the warmer part of the atmosphere),
    I agree, but we were talking about gas turbines being used in cars so I felt it was relevant.

  • avatar

    “It’s just the will to think outside the box.”

    But microtubines !!

    Menno I think you just threw away the box.

    As for those who would sacrifice themselves on the altar of High Efficiency, Neodymium-Iron-Boron magnets are not the be-all in electrical machine design that others insist.

    Induction motors are still an excellent choice particularly when fitted with copper rotors. They can also run at much higher temperatures before meltdown. This reduced susceptibility to abuse makes their specific Power Density figures a whole lot better.

    Let’s go after Audi instead, who boost power with turbos without a commensurate reduction in engine size and then have the nerve to bring them to North American shores.

    We need to get the gms/mile of pollutants down. Any type of system, microturbines included, which promotes the burning of increased levels of fuel is a problem for North America.


  • avatar

    Yikes – quoting Julian Simon as the Smiter of Malthusians is pretty funny stuff. Quite the reverse. Simon made the remarkable claim that population could continue to grow for 7 billion years:

    Albert Bartlett, emeritus professor of physics, analyses this remarkable claim:

    The economist Julian Simon is famous for his belief that there are no limits to growth. In a recent article he wrote

    Technology exists now to produce in virtually inexhaustable quantities just about all the products made by nature – foodstuffs, oil, even pearls and diamonds . . .

    We have in our hands now – actually in our libraries – the technology to feed, clothe and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years . . .

    Even if no new knowledge were ever gained . . . we would be able to go on increasing our population forever . . .

    Two friends wrote me to call my attention to this article, and one of them said in his letter that Simon had been contacted and that Simon said that the “7 billion years” was an error and it should have been “7 million years.”

    We should note two things. First, there is a big difference between “million” and “billion.” In the U.S. a “billion” is a thousand million. Second, even 7 million years is a long period of time. One of these friends asked me: if the world population in 1995 is 5.7 billion people (5.7 x 109), what would its size be if it grew steadily at 1% per year for 7 million years?

    Bartlett gives Julian a lesson in Maths:

    This indicates that the population of the Earth, growing at 1% per year, would grow to a number equal to the number of atoms estimated to be in the known universe, in a period of time something like the period since a recent ice age. We could also ask, what growth rate would be required for the world population to grow from 5.7 x 109 to 3 x 1085 in 7 million years? We must find the value of k in this equation

    7) 3 x 1085 = 5.7 x 109 exp(7 x 106 k)

    Solving this, we find k = 2.5 x 10-5 per year. This is 2.5 x 10-3 percent per year. In the first year this growth rate would produce an increase of world population of about 1.42 x 105 people. Contrast this with the present increase of about 9 x 107 per year.

    These numbers make it clear to us old fashioned “spherical earth people” that the world population cannot continue to grow for long at anything like its present rate. There are signs that the population growth rate is already slowing in some parts of Europe and Asia.

    Calculations similar to these remind us that the major effect of steady growth in the rates of consumption of non-renewable resources is to shorten dramatically the life-expectancy of the resources.

    Julian Simon has claimed that the human mind is “the ultimate resource.” As was noted in the review of his 1981 book, this is true “only if it [the human mind] is used.”


  • avatar

    Well, to know whether (population) growth can last forever, we must first know if the total mass of the accessible universe is growing or not. This, so far, has been in the realm of theories only.

    But I am willing to bet the growth cannot last forever. If the universe is not growing, of course the population cannot grow forever. If the universe is indeed growing, then we may have a theoretical chance, but still may not have the time to migrate to other planets or galaxies before ours is doomed.

  • avatar

    Humans (not to trivialize, really), are an equivalent to a ‘cancer’ on the earth – once the cancer gets too big, the host dies.

    Sorry for the downer.

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