Anyone who’s followed America’s crush on renewable energy from a reliability perspective appreciates the fact that a typical 1 MW windmill puts several tons of gearbox and generator about 300 ft. in the air, with a 200-ft. diameter blade assembly spinning on one end. Everything flexes in the wind so it’s hard to keep the power transmission system aligned, and the plethora of moving parts can lead to a whole new definition of “high maintenance.”
So when GE conceptualized a 3.6 MW windmill for offshore use, it eliminated the gearbox by using a direct-drive design with a 20-ft. diameter generator rotor studded with hundreds of neodymium-iron-boron rare earth magnets (www.popsci.com/technology/article/2010-03/next-gen-wind-turbine). Rare earth materials have starring roles in high-efficiency industrial motors, hard drives, earbuds, cruise missiles, and many other critical products.
Back in the 1990s, China put most of its rare-earth competitors out of business by cutting prices and buying producers, and now supplies more than 95% of the world market. There are rare earth deposits in the U.S., Australia, and elsewhere, but China has far more and better ores, and at this time, it’s the only country with commercial facility for final refinement.
For this and many other reasons, when relations with China get chilly, lots of U.S. industrialists start to sweat. But they shouldn’t be surprised, and they wouldn’t be if they knew a little world history.
A typical American learns some American history and not much else. I’m an American so I was intrigued when my friend, the history buff, told me there is nothing unusual about China’s recent reactions to Western political and market pressures. “China has always been a very self-absorbed and isolationist country,” he told me. “Especially since the Opium Wars.”
It’s right there on Wikipedia: “Most opium came from Turkey or India, and in 1800 its import was forbidden by the imperial government. Despite this restriction, the opium trade continued to flourish. Privately owned vessels of many countries, including the United States, made huge profits from the growing number of Chinese addicts. The government in Peking noted that the foreigners seemed intent on dragging down the Chinese through the encouragement of opium addiction.
“The balance of trade turned against the Chinese in the 1830s, and the British decided to force the issue of increased trade rights. The point of conflict was the opium trade. By the late 1830s more than 30,000 chests, each of which held about 150 pounds of the extract, were being brought in annually by the various foreign powers. Some authorities assert that the trade in opium alone reversed China's formerly favorable balance of trade. In the spring of 1839, Chinese authorities at Canton confiscated and burned the opium. In response, the British occupied positions around Canton.
“In the war that followed, the Chinese couldn’t match the technological and tactical superiority of the British forces. In 1842, China agreed to the provisions of the Treaty of Nanking. Hong Kong was ceded to Great Britain, and other ports, including Canton, were opened to British residence and trade. It would be a mistake to view the conflict between the two countries simply as a matter of drug control; it was instead the acting out of deep cultural conflicts between east and west.
“The French and Americans approached the Chinese after the Nanking Treaty's provisions became known, and in 1844 gained the same trading rights as the British. The advantages granted the three nations by the Chinese set a precedent that would dominate China's relations with the world for the next century. The ‘most favored nation’ treatment came to be extended so far that China's right to rule in its own territory was limited. This began the period referred to by the Chinese as the time of unequal treaties - a time of unprecedented degradation for China. The humiliation the Central Kingdom suffered is still remembered and strongly affects important aspects of its foreign policy.”
This is not the first, and probably won’t be the last, time the wind out of China turns chilly. No problem, as long as we can get our magnets.