The Belly of the Dragon

In days long past people actually believed in dragons. Today people that ‘believe’ in dragons are usually mindless hippie-mystics. However, the being of a dragon is a perfect analogy for many things. Imagine a giant green dragon. It lies like Smaug on its pile of spoils and stolen treasure. It breathes smoke and fire at anyone who approaches. This massive worm goes by many names, most of the soft and friendly sounding. Many of them sound responsible and good. This dragon masquerades as a great protecting spirit: Green energy, Renewable Fuel, Environmentalism, Sustainability… who wouldn’t want to be sustainable and responsible with the resources we have? It is an unbeatable question, and also a lie. It is a clever lie, one that hides and is not even spoken. The lie is that the only way to be responsible is complete submission to the dragon.

Smaug

The good (and in some ways bad) news is that the dragon, also like Smaug, has a soft underbelly.  There are actually a number of spots without scales and protection; they are just hidden through the incessant effort of the media leaving people uninformed and, unfortunately complicit scientists. Like I mentioned in ‘Modern Philosopher’s Stone’ scientists frequently do not discuss the actual feasibility of their research for a few reasons, some perfectly innocent. The major reason is that they need only mention the difficulties since other scientists already know. However, people (many of whom are supporting the research involuntarily through taxes and debt) have no idea how feasible or truly sustainable these government lead innovations are. A connection that I see made rather frequently in at least conservative media is the connection between bio-fuel and world hunger. This is very real, but almost never mentioned. In any given year, there is a finite amount of corn. The corn that America grows (and can grow) is more than we eat, however, the more we burn the more tortillas cost in Mexico, the less oil-poor Arab countries can eat, etc etc… all to feed the Green Dragon its bio-fuel.

However, here is another one that I look around for, trying to find people talking about rare earth metals. There are basically two things that make the modern world work. And work it does, we emit less pollution, are less devastated by natural disasters, we grow more food than we eat, the modern first world has many good things that environmentalists would like if they only looked. These two things are oil and rare earth metals. Out of oil comes most of your clothes, your car, all transportation, the soles of your shoes… that acetaminophen that you take for pain relief… comes from oil. Every fine chemical, you know the ones that make ‘miracle drugs’ almost invariably are made with oil derived starting materials. (I think someone should write a poem about oil, and the ease of modern life which is a direct result of oil…)

Rare earth metals make modern technology function.  According to Popular mechanics (for the actual amount) there is 10 pounds of lanthanum in a Prius. Also, absolutely everything seems to have neodymium magnets in it. For example: windmills. That’s right, every single ‘green energy’ windmill requires a large quantity of neodymium. (Also, I believe the Prius uses a large amount of this one too…) Anything that takes electricity and makes something spin (or the other way around for windmills) is almost guaranteed to have neodymium in it.

So, electric cars, windmills, the two current obsessions of the great dragon environmentalism require these rare earths. Where do they come from and how do we get them? Well, the second question helps to answer the first. They are mined in a nasty way, which as of now is the only way. The waste from a rare earth mine is full of cesium and strong acids and radioactive elements. That is because they are all chemically (atomically) very similar in interactions, so a deposit of rare earths is full of other things. Due to this, and the vociferous and strident insistence that nasty things never be done in ‘my backyard’ which for the worshipers of environmentalism is all of America, there is only one operating rare earth mine in America. Somewhere around 90+% of rare earths come from…. China. It is not that we don’t have deposits of rare earths, it is that the EPA will not let anyone open a mine for them.

re-consumer-products

So why is this the belly of the dragon? Just as the reports of windmills slaughtering migratory birds, the need to consume these metals shows the whole movement a farce. Wishing to actually take care of the earth (rather, the parts of it we can affect through electing our leaders) would lead people to try something, evaluate if it works, and if it does not work or is a net loss change how they do things. Instead I am very much afraid that environmentalism is one of the many disguises of totalitarianism: that disgusting philosophy that lets one set of people with the ‘right’ ideas to dominate everyone else. They pretend that these things like windmills are sustainable energy when, in fact, they are at least as unsustainable as oil and not a particularly stable energy supply. It calms the masses and gives the entitled elite something to shout about when rubes like me want to burn oil. (If you haven’t seen the newest news, US carbon emissions are going down… due to natural gas replacing coal since natural gas is cheap…. Due to fracking.) However this is even more a soft spot for environmentalism, since windmills killing birds has little geopolitical considerations. However China, no matter how stable they tried to make that country seem in you history classes, has a long history of horribly huge upheavals. Sure the Chinese have been around a very very long time, but if China decides to have to have another civil war, or Taiping rebellion or any war really, the global cost of rare earths will be so affected there is no real analogy to oil and war in the middle east. Those of us who believe that we should use resources (while protecting our rivers from burning…) should start thinking about the rare earth mining, and the EPA.

Update: China Prepares for War The writer is usually quite glum about the state of the world affairs… but still, There is frequent unsettling news from China.

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4 responses to “The Belly of the Dragon

  1. Biofuels and wind energy are easy targets. What about thin-dim silicon solar?

  2. “thin-film”, of course.

  3. Here is some more possibly relevant info.

    The oil became a major energy source only because of development of internal combustion engine. Oil has been used for centuries in small quantities, but the massive drilling, refining and distribution system became practical only for IC needs. Only about 2% of electricity is generated from oil in US. About 13% comes from renewables, the largest of which is hydro.

    Re rare earth for wind energy, from what i remember the major part which involves rare earth is magnet for the generator. It is true that most of these come from China now. I couldn’t find anything made in US when looking for some for a student project. Interestingly, one can use anaerobic oxidation of rust to get both magnetic material (e.g. for wind turbines) and hydrogen (e.g. as fuel). It is known as Schikorr reaction: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schikorr_reaction

    So in principle this can be used to recycle old rusty cars into wind turbine generators and hydrogen fuel. By the way it does not necessary involve high-pressure steam to do this as it is done now. One can also use large vacuum chambers (to decrease molecular oxygen concentration) and introduce moderate amount of low temperature water vapor. It might even become practical one day. It would probably require us to use more of our God given gifts of learning about the world He created.

  4. For the magnets produced by this (admittedly very cool) Schikorr reaction, I am not sure how useful they might be. The key use of rare earth based magnets is that they have very high strength in very small amounts. An article in (the fairly useless) C&EN News (American Chemical Society publication) is actually what re-started me thinking about this. They talk about recovering rare earths for reuse, etc. because regular iron based magnets are too large and heavy for the high performance needed in these cases.

    Article: http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i1/Powerful-Pull-New-Magnets.html

    In the case of oil, I was actually thinking of natural gas, which is becoming cheaper and cheaper due to fracking etc. and is used for energy production.

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