Rare earth elements are at the forefront of clean energy production and a leading driver for the predicted growth of several emergent clean energy technologies. Developments in electric power steering motors, wind and hydro power turbines, high-performance batteries, energy efficient appliance motors, magnetic refrigeration, and fuel cells can all contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a reduced dependence on fossil fuels.
A common rare earth element (REE) application in clean energy is found in energy efficient lighting. Rare earth phosphors in bulbs, primarily europium and terbium, convert five times more energy to light than alternative materials, and have a six to ten times longer life span. This directly reduces greenhouse gas emissions because less energy is used. Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulbs consume less energy than incandescent bulbs, and represent the largest global application of one rare earth element, terbium. The interiors of CFL bulbs are covered with varying combinations of metallic and rare-earth luminescing phosphor salts.
Light emitting diodes (LEDs), which also rely on rare earth technology, also consume less energy, last longer and are more durable than incandescent bulbs. Phosphor-based LEDs have a life expectancy of approximately 50,000 hours. U.S. government policy has prompted the reduction of incandescent bulbs, and increased the usage of CFL and LED lighting - resulting in the growing consumption of REEs.
Permanent magnets made from praseodymium and alloys of neodymium, terbium and dysprosium are central to electric motors due to heat-resistant properties. Praseodymium, neodymium, lanthanum and cerium are used in rechargeable batteries for wind turbines. The use of rare earth permanent magnets in wind turbines eliminates the need for gear boxes, which can reduce reliability. The improved reliability of rare earth magnets is particularly beneficial for off-shore wind power generators. Neodymium is the primary element present in such magnets. Rare earth magnets facilitate larger wind power generator designs that can provide a clean alternative to hydrocarbon fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Such magnets also facilitate larger currents of electricity to be generated. For example, air conditioning units that use rare earth magnets consume 50 percent less energy than similar units, while providing the same power output.