Rare Earth Elements from a Life Cycle Assessments perspective
Rare earths elements are naturally-occurring elements that, once mined and processed, can be used in a variety of industrial applications: permanent magnets used in wind turbines, hybrid car motors, components for military hardware and other high-tech applications.
In Vestas the rare earth elements are used in the magnets found in the tower and in the permanent-magnet generators in some of the newer models – the V112-3.0 MW and 2.0 MW GridStreamer™ platform. The rare earths elements are used to improve the performance of turbines by making the generators more efficient and more grid-compatible. This allows Vestas to reduce the size of the generator and therefore use fewer other resources (steel, composite structural materials, etc.) and create a smaller carbon footprint.
Vestas uses approximately 68kg of neodymium in the permanent-magnet generator for a V112- 3.0 MW wind turbine. In addition an amount of around 14kg of neodymium is used in the tower magnet, bringing it to a total of 82kg neodymium used for one V112- 3.0 MW as well as 7kg dysprosium.
The use of 14kg rare earths elements in the V112-3.0 MW tower magnets (of 84m height) results in a saving of around 10 tonnes steel in the tower per wind turbine. This equates to a saving of around 8.0 tonnes of CO2 equivalents over the entire life cycle - i.e. accounting for the potential environmental impacts of the magnets and steel production, use and end-of-life recycling and disposal.
It is important to understand the difference between different types of turbine designs and how each design uses rare earths elements. There are two types of turbine drive train concepts using rare earth elements: conventional geared drive train and direct-drive (without a gearbox). The amount of rare earths elements used in direct-drive turbines is substantially higher – up to 10 times as much as a generator in a conventional drive train. Today, all Vestas turbines are based on conventional drive trains.
The contribution of rare earth elements (such as neodymium and dysprosium) used in the turbine generator magnets, and also in the magnets used in the tower, make a negligible contribution to total resource depletion, contributing below 0.1% of total life cycle impacts.
Work with supply chain
Vestas acknowledges the environmental impact of the rare earth mining and processing, and strive to minimise the impact as much as possible. All types of mining and processing operations have environmental impacts, but it is up to industry players such as Vestas and our business partners to ensure these are minimised and managed.
Vestas purchase its permanent magnets from reputable worldwide companies who source most of their rare earth elements from China. Currently, China provides approximately most of the world’s rare earth elements supply. Vestas’ suppliers confirm that their raw materials are sourced only from mines which manufacture according to Chinese laws.
Vestas is pursuing alternative rare earth elements supplies from other countries, including new rare earth mines already underway in such places as India, Canada, Australia and the USA. We do this in cooperation with our rare earth elements magnet supplier partners. A greater diversity of rare earth elements suppliers will lead to more possibilities when choosing supplier, lower prices and a greater emphasis on sustainability throughout the value chain.