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Materials Roundup: Energy and Unintended Consequences

From hybrid cars to nuclear reactors, stories this week highlighted the dirty side of clean energy.

I recently finished up a feature for the May issue of TR on the rare-earth supply crisis, in the process of which I learned in some detail about the dirty processes used to make green technologies like rare-earth permanent magnets for hybrid and electric car motors. With that in my mind, and continued problems at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-1 in the news, stories on the unintended consequences of energy technologies have been catching my eye this week.

On Tuesday, the Japanese government raised the severity rating of the accident at Fukushima Dai-1 to level 7 on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s scale, which puts it on par with Chernobyl. At IEEE Spectrum, Eliza Strickland takes a look at the numbers and explains why even though the severity level is the same as Chernobyl, this doesn’t mean the situation is as dire. But it’s not over. She writes:

When a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in 1986, it sprayed radioactive material high into the air. Then graphite in the reactor began to burn, which sent a plume of highly radioactive smoke into the atmosphere. The drifting smoke spread radioactive materials over a wide area, and more than 300 000 people were eventually evacuated and resettled in safer areas. In total, the Chernobyl accident released an estimated 14 million terabecquerels of radioactive material.

There are several competing estimates of the Fukushima Dai-1’s total emissions to date–but it seems clear that the radiation release is much lower than Chernobyl’s. According to Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the plant has released a total of 370 000 terabecquerels of radioactive material to date, while Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission estimates the number at 630 000 terabecquerels.

Researchers at Cornell have turned over a piece of shale and found some bad news about natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal but, when its entire life cycle is taken into account, has some risks that some say have not been adequately addressed. In the New York Times, Tom Zeller reports on a Cornell study that says the chief component of natural gas, the greenhouse gas methane, leaks out of shale gas wells and pipelines at an alarming rate of 7.9 percent. Natural gas producers quoted in the story dispute the number, saying it would be bad business for them to let so much of their product go. TR will have a story looking at this issue sometime this week. From the Times story:

Mark D. Whitley, a senior vice president for engineering and technology with Range Resources, a gas drilling company with operations in several regions of the country, said the losses suggested by Mr. Howarth’s study were simply too high.

“These are huge numbers,” he said. “That the industry would let what amounts to trillions of cubic feet of gas get away from us doesn’t make any sense. That’s not the business that we’re in.”

And in good but vague news, the owner of the biggest rare-earth mine in the Western Hemisphere, Molycorp Minerals, announced late last week that it will be entering into a research agreement with the Ames National Laboratory in Iowa. The Ames Tribune has a short item. I sat in on the press conference and neither party would provide details about what rare-earth research problems they’re tackling or how much money Molycorp will give Ames. But there are many problems to tackle, from coming up with more efficient ways to use the materials in magnets to cleaner processing methods. It seems likely, but I’m just speculating, that Molycorp would fund ongoing research at Ames on cleaner methods for purifying rare earth metals, the first step in making magnets and other products (making permanent rare earth magnets is in Molycorp’s plans for the coming years). From previous interviews with Ames scientists, I’ve learned that the lab is developing a catalytic purification process that would eliminate the need to use fluoride, but previously had not had the money to get the process to pilot scale any time soon.

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