Rare earth alternatives are as easy as mock apple pie

Every year, just a short walk from CleanSpeak’s home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Strawbery Banke historic museum puts on seasonal reenactments of life during different periods in American history. The most consistently interesting are the World War II era reenactments, when rationing and shortages ruled everyday life.

Walk into the kitchen of the 1940’s home and the lady of the house might be making a cake with no flour or eggs, or an apple pie with no apples – yes, the old “mock apple pie” recipe from the back of the Ritz cracker box. During those years, in the kitchen and beyond, every time ingenuity met shortage, ingenuity won. Oleo margarine replaced butter because the military needed fat for explosives. Nylon replaced imported Asian silk in parachutes as it previously had in women’s stockings. A chicory concoction – a vile brew by the few firsthand accounts I’ve heard, but better than nothing – substituted for coffee.

So when China makes more noise about curtailing the flow of rare earths vital to the renewable energy industry, I can’t get too bunged up. We’ve been there before. We’ll figure it out.

This sanguine attitude runs counter to much of the prevailing wisdom in sustainability circles. China produces 95 percent of the world’s rare earth metals, and its plans to cut back exports have sent tremors through the sustainability community. Wind turbine and hybrid vehicle manufacturers need rare earths to produce ultra-efficient magnets and batteries. Magnets doped with rare earth metals called neodymium and dysprosium generate electricity more efficiently than conventional magnets, and are also smaller and lighter.

The problem with these wonder metals is that they’re so environmentally harmful to produce that it undercuts the sustainability quotient of every wind turbine with a rare earth magnet. “Rare earths” aren’t rare. They occur in much of the world, but they occur in such small concentrations that it takes extensive production processes to extract them from raw ore. None of these processes are what you might call tidy. The New York Times reported that the main rare earth-producing mine and refining area in China is surrounded by metallic-smelling air, strip-mined hills, acid-laden streams, and a reservoir overflowing with toxic, slightly radioactive sludge.

This is in the name of clean energy?

There has to be a better way, and ironically it might be China that helps find it. China claims it is curtailing rare earth exports because of production’s environmental toll. As a card-carrying cynic, I think it has a lot more to do with China wanting to use the metals itself to help corner the world market on wind turbines.

In either case, China’s decision is spurring research into rare earth alternatives. Hitachi has developed a hybrid engine that uses high-efficiency ferric oxide magnets instead of rare earth magnets. Toyota is also working on a non-rare-earth generator. U.K.-based Chorus Motors has produced a hybrid engine that substitutes innovative mechanics for rare earths. Disk drive manufacturers, another big rare earth consumer, are developing bigger and better flash drives that don’t need magnetic media. The nanomagnetism research group at Northeastern University in Boston is working on magnets that have the same strength as rare earth magnets with none of the toxicity. They’ve already succeeded in reducing the cost and environmental footprint of rare earth magnets, which bodes well for efforts to replace them altogether.

I don’t know if any of these are an equal substitute for rare earths, but it’s obvious we need one. Poisoning the earth and water to save the air just doesn’t add up. A pie made with real apples (and my Irish grandmother’s recipe) is still the gold standard, as rare earth magnets may always be. But if it will help the environment to take the bronze, serve me up some Ritz crackers soaked in cinnamon and lemon juice.

Greenpeace as the tech industry’s green stamp of approval

Greenpeace has done its absolute best to be an epic pain in corporate world’s collective butt since 1971. So when Greenpeace says the corporate world is doing something right, there is an upside for said corporate world. After all, when just about every company in the world wants a good environmental record, who’s a more credible source than your most intractable green enemy?

A few days ago, Greenpeace released its third report on the computer industry’s green quotient. This year’s survey covered almost all of the heavy wood in the tech hardware industry: Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, HCL, HP, Lenovo, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic, Blackberry, Samsung, Sharp, Sony Ericsson, Sony, Toshiba and Wipro. (Not Apple, though. The two of them have been like a pair of wet cats in a gunny sack since 2006, when Greenpeace apparently singled Apple out for criticism of its environmental practices because a fight with Apple would draw the most press attention.) The reports ranks 18 of the world’s top desktop, laptop, television and game console manufacturers on three criteria:

  • removing toxic substances from their products;
  • end-of-life takeback; and
  • energy efficiency.

For the first time since it started the report in 2006, Greenpeace says the industry is making substantive progress in all three areas on a large scale. The report’s subtitle isn’t all that glowing – “Getting Greener But Not There” – but the progress made in just two years looks impressive. When Greenpeace did the first report in 2008, none of the products surveyed could claim to be green. Only a few scored even five out of a possible 10 points. By 2010, the picture was a lot brighter. Most companies were scoring well above five out of 10. The gap between the highest and lowest scores was much lower than in the previous two surveys. The industry significantly reduced its toxic chemical use and exceeded energy efficiency goals. High-tech companies still aren’t doing enough in product end-of-life, according to the report, but it also went on to say that:

This is an incredibly competitive, innovative and solutions-based industry, capable of creating the changes necessary to guarantee a sustainable lifecycle for each product manufactured. From our first Guide to Greener Electronics in 2006 to this third Survey in 2011, Greenpeace has seen the industry’s ability to consistently put greener products on the market. We believe the industry has the ability to overcome these existing challenges.

That’s an extraordinarily upbeat assessment from a group that isn’t famous for its good manners. Greenpeace is one of those groups that gives even their sympathizers the shakes now and again. There’s an unmistakable tone of smug superiority in their campaigns and their public statements, and they often come across as insufferably self-congratulatory. Their rhetoric is often over the top, such as calling Dell a “bloody marketing machine” for failing to eliminate hazardous chemicals from their products on a previously announced schedule. Greenpeace’s more colorful stunts routinely make the news media. In 2009, the group painted “Hazardous Products” on the roof of HP’s Palo Alto headquarters to punish the company for reneging on a promise to build more environmentally friendly products. Greenpeace members have chained themselves to public buildings, disrupted missile tests on restricted government property, and played chicken with whaling boats (though the group says it opposes violent tactics like that of former Greenpeace member Paul Watson). Greenpeace members scaled a water tower near George Bush’s Texas ranch to spotlight his administration’s environmental policies. They run embarrassing advertising campaigns against companies that don’t subscribe to their environmental orthodoxy.

They’ve also done things that, whether or not you agree with them, take incredible personal courage. Greenpeace volunteers have wrapped their bodies around baby harp seals in Arctic temperatures to protect them from Canadian hunters. Others blockaded the hunters’ ships to give still more volunteers time to douse the seals with green dye to ruin their fur. Those tactics helped effectively end the trade in harp seal fur in Europe in the 1980s. Greenpeace has often suffered for their boldness. In 1985, a Greenpeace photographer was killed when French government operatives blew up the group’s ship “Rainbow Warrior” as it sat in a New Zealand harbor preparing to protest a French nuclear test. Japan has imprisoned two Greenpeace activists on trumped-up trespassing charges after the pair turned over information that documented illegal whale meat sales.

What this is all leading up to is that no one can dispute Greenpeace’s authenticity. Love them or hate them or indifferent toward them, you can’t deny that their environmental cred is sterling because they’ve put skin in the game for 40 years. And the high-tech industry needs environmental cred.

The tech industry’s high electricity and toxic chemical consumption and its products’ relatively short lifespan have made it a target for environmental groups agitating for a more environmentally sustainable economy. There’s a lot of greenwashing going on these days as tech companies try to prove they’re not molesting the environment as they’re going about their business. Journalists and the public are getting more suspicious of environmental claims. Greenpeace is immune to greenwashing charges. The tech industry apparently understands that as much as they might privately loathe Greenpeace – hello Steve Jobs and the HP headquarters staff – the group’s imprimatur carries weight with a public that cares more and more about environmental issues. When Greenpeace and industry have a symbiotic relationship – even an uneasy one – you know the world is changing.

Mother Nature has gone off message

Forty-nine of our 50 states have snow on the ground – even Hawaii, says CNN – and we in the Northeast are getting dumped on. We’ve got official emergency declarations, National Guard activations, power outages, car crashes, flight cancellations and closings of just about every kind of operation that has a choice. It’s hard to worry about global warming today.

But just in case you were out shoveling and missed it:

  • We (or rather our descendants) are going to be living for the next 1,000 years with the adverse effects of the CO2 we’ve already generated – even if we could somehow halt fossil fuel use today. That’s according to a study just published in Nature Geoscience.

So if you go outside today, bundle up – and pray for a way to stay cool.

We care less about the climate

Or so it seems. As the planet heats up, global media coverage of the climate is down. Journalists published 23,156 climate-related stories in English last year, down 30 percent from 2009’s count, according to DailyClimate.org.

The new UN climate agreement in Cancun was largely ignored, at least compared with the 2009 edition in Copenhagen. That‘s the one that brought us the Climategate scandal, which set carbon consciousness back decades. Daily Climate says the December 2010 Cancun conference got a mere 10 seconds of airtime on the major network news.

The public just doesn’t seem to care like it used to. Or is it the media?

One thing stifling effective climate coverage is newsroom “tyrannies,” including those of limited time and space, of balance, and of the required “peg” or hook to justify a story’s urgency, says New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin.


There’s another tyranny, adds a Dot Earth commenter: The Tyranny of Boredom. “What about the simple fact that climate is quite possibly the most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public?” Randy Olson asks. “This stuff is bo-ho-ho-ring.”

If boring, it’s also complex. Consider the fact that December 2010 was the United Kingdom’s coldest since nationwide records began in 1910, and it was central England’s second coldest December since 1659. Now that’s a news hook. But being of the man-bites-dog variety, it muddies the waters, undermining the general understanding that global temperatures are, in fact, trending up.

(Eco-jargon compounds the boredom, complexity and confusion. Sustainability, for example,is one of Advertising Age‘s top 10 “jargoniest” pieces of jargon in 2010. “The term is a good concept gone bad by mis- and overuse. It’s come to be a squishy, feel-good catchall for doing the right thing.”)

In all of these cases, the “right” side of the argument is simply drowned out. A wind power company in the UK notes that 66 percent of survey respondents living near its controversial project actually support its proposed massive turbines while only 12 percent oppose them. But you’d never know it. Said the wind power company’s CEO, “We see this too often, the small loud minority being mistaken for the voice of the people.” (via Treehugger)

A new communications weapon

Concerned climate environmentalists and scientists are hoping to penetrate the ennui and reignite passion for their cause through “mind bombs,” writes Der Spiegel’s Axel Bjanowski. Mind bombs distill a cause into a highly emotional image, such as Greenpeace’s famous bleeding whale (image above), and drive a core message home. But photos of polar bears on ice, violent storms, turbines, or hockey stick graphs have been mind duds. They just aren’t working.

Other new communications strategies might include:

Sexy ads, e.g., a good-looking researcher in a bathing suit in the Arctic

  • Enlisting scientists to do their own journalism
  • Thinking smaller, i.e., focusing on a single, discrete facet of the climate problem and engaging a target audience to act
  • Anointing a new Al Gore
  • Establishing dedicated channels and processes for communicating important climate findings. (via Der Spiegel)

My hunch is that climate interest will largely hinge on the mind bombs. Two sets of birds falling from the sky – sad but not climate-related – are insignificant in the great scheme of things, but they generated massive interest this week. Meanwhile, a truly nuclear mind bomb, the BP spill, has an astonishingly short half-life in the public consciousness.

Climate change is the most important question of our generation: How can we amplify the silent ticking of the most devastating bomb of all, so that we compel the world to disarm it?