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Sewage data analyzed in Silicon Valley wastewater treatment plants confirms that the latest wave of coronavirus infections is sharply worse than the ones in the spring and summer.
Lake Huron sinkhole surprise: The rise of oxygen on early Earth linked to changing planetary rotation rate
At a laboratory inside a Google data center in Mayes County, Oklahoma, researchers spent the fall of 2019 disassembling old hard disk drives by hand in order to extract a 2-inch-long component known as the magnet assembly. Consisting of two powerful rare earth magnets, the magnet assembly is a critical muscle within the hard drive, controlling an actuator arm that allows the device to read and write data.
Over the course of six weeks, the scientists harvested 6,100 of these magnetic muscles, all of them effectively good as new. The magnets were then shipped to a hard drive manufacturing facility in Thailand, where they were placed into new drives and, eventually, redeployed to data centers around the world.
This is a far cry from what happens to the estimated 22 million hard disk drives that age out of North American data centers each year. Typically, when a data center operator swaps out old drives for new ones — as they do every three to five years — the discarded drives are unceremoniously shredded. The rare earth elements, which took significant energy and resources to mine and turn into magnets, are lost in a sea of aluminum scrap.
But for several years, Google and others in the tech industry have been quietly working to change that. Motivated by concerns about future rare earth metal supply shortages as well as the environmental toll of rare earth mining, which casts a cloud over their green credentials, tech companies, along with partners in academia and government, are exploring whether they can mine hard drives instead. Until now, these efforts have garnered little public attention. But they may get a boost under the Biden administration, which recently flagged government data center hard drives as a promising source of the rare earth elements America needs not just for data storage devices and consumer electronics, but also for energy technologies that are key to fighting climate change.
“Hard drive magnets are important because they contain neodymium and dysprosium, which are essential for electric vehicles and wind turbines,” Hongyue Jin, a scientist at the University of Arizona who studies rare earth recycling, told Grist. Of the 17 different rare earth elements, “these two are currently the most important and critical.”
Data centers, warehouses of computers that form the physical backbone of the internet, are a great place to find those elements. They are the world’s largest consumers of hard disk drives, which are one of the largest end uses for rare earth magnets. Unlike the hard drives inside personal computers, which tend to gather dust in peoples’ basements when they reach the end of their life, data center operators have strict protocols for collecting and disposing of old hard disk drives in order to protect data security.
“A hard drive sitting in your computer at home requires you as the consumer to take it to a recycler,” said Kali Frost, a doctoral student in industrial sustainability at Purdue University. “Data centers are already a supply of millions of hard drives. The companies operating those data centers want to handle them in the best way possible, and increasingly, optimize them for sustainability.”
The U.S. alone generates nearly 17 percent of all used hard disk drives — the largest share globally — and researchers have estimated that if all of these data storage devices were recycled, they could supply more than 5 percent of all rare earth magnet demand outside of China, potentially helping meet the demand of the information technology sector as well as clean energy companies. A consortium of U.S. researchers, tech companies, hardware manufacturers, and electronic waste recyclers has recently begun exploring exactly how those rare earths can be re-harvested and given a second life.
In 2019, these stakeholders published a report identifying a host of potential strategies, including wiping and re-using entire hard disk drives, removing and reusing the magnet assemblies, grinding up old hard drive magnets and using the powder to manufacture new ones, and extracting purified rare earth elements from shredded drives. Each of these strategies has its own challenges — removing magnet assemblies by hand is labor intensive; extracting rare earths from technology can be chemical or energy intensive and produce significant waste — and for any of them to be scaled up, there needs to be buy-in from numerous actors across global supply chains.
Making even the relatively minor supply chain adjustments needed to place used or recycled rare earth magnets inside new drives “is difficult,” Jin said. “And especially when you’ve got to start from some small amount with a new technology.”
Still, some companies have begun taking the first steps. In 2018, Google, hard disk drive manufacturer Seagate, and electronics refurbisher Recontext (formerly Teleplan) conducted a small demonstration project that involved removing the magnet assemblies from six hard disk drives and placing them in new Seagate drives. This demonstration, Frost says, was the “catalyst” for the larger 2019 study in which 6,100 magnet assemblies were extracted from Seagate hard drives in a Google data center before being inserted into new hard drives in a Seagate manufacturing facility. Frost, who led the 2019 study, believes it is the largest demonstration of its kind ever done.
The results, which will be published in a forthcoming edition of the journal Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, not only showed that rare earth magnets could be harvested and reused at larger scale, but that there were significant environmental benefits to doing so: Overall, re-used magnet assemblies had a carbon footprint 86 percent lower than new ones, according to the study. Frost says that this estimate conservatively took into account the energy mix of the local power grid where the data center operated. Considering Google’s near round-the-clock renewable energy usage at this particular data center, the carbon footprint of the reused magnets was even lower.
Google declined to say whether it has any follow-up projects in the works but pointed Grist toward its publicly announced goal of developing a scalable rare earth magnet recycling process. Ines Sousa, the supplier environmental impact program manager at Google and a co-author on the new study, says there are a few challenges that still need to be overcome before that’s a reality.
These include the need for extreme cleanliness during magnet recycling “as modern hard drives are very sensitive to small particles,” and the fact that hard drives are constantly changing, resulting in new magnet designs every few years.
“There is an opportunity to make magnet design constant between generations so the reuse process can scale,” Sousa said.
Seagate spokesperson Greg Belloni told Grist that the company is “committed to working to solve the complexity” of rare earth recycling in “close collaboration with customers.” Another of its customers, computer maker Dell, is exploring a different recycling approach.
In 2019, Dell launched a pilot program with Seagate and Recontext to harvest magnets from computer hard drives collected via a Dell take-back program, crush them up, extract the rare earths, and use them to form new magnets. To date, some 19,000 pounds of rare earth magnets have been harvested for recycling via this collaboration. The project “remains a pilot program as we continue to look for ways to scale within our own operations,” Dell spokesperson Mel Derome told Grist.
While it may be years before rare earth magnets are being recycled en masse using any approach, the Biden administration could help to accelerate these efforts. Through the Critical Materials Institute at Ames National Laboratory, the federal government already funds several projects focused on developing cleaner and more efficient processes for recycling rare earth elements from magnets. In a recent report on strengthening supply chain resilience, administration officials wrote that the 4,000 U.S. government-operated data centers represent a “near term opportunity” to harvest rare earth magnets using this type of federally funded research and development.
Jin says that such a program could bring down barriers to recycling across the tech industry, similar to how the Biden administration’s plan to electrify the federal fleet could give the wider electric vehicle market a boost. It could also lay the groundwork for the electric vehicle sector to develop its own rare earth magnet recycling approaches.
“Establishing a new process for 6,000 drives is not really commercially viable,” Jin said, referring to the number of hard drive magnets recycled in the Google study. “But if we talk about 4,000 data centers, it’s more viable to change the supply chain and implement new reuse and recycling pathways. So I am really happy to hear that.”
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Can you recycle a hard drive? Google is quietly trying to find out on Aug 2, 2021.
The day the Science Museum in London opened its latest exhibition on climate change in May, a group of scientists from the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion locked themselves inside in protest. Their gripe? The exhibit, called “Our Future Planet,” which highlights the promise of technologies to suck up carbon dioxide from the air or from industrial smokestacks, was sponsored by the oil and gas giant Shell.
The sponsorship first sparked outcry when it was announced in April. “We condemn the Science Museum’s decision to accept this sponsorship and provide Shell with an opportunity for brazen green-washing,” the U.K. Student Climate Network wrote in an open letter at the time. The Science Museum Group’s director defended the exhibit and the sponsorship, saying “we retain editorial control.”
But on Thursday, new evidence emerged showing that the money Shell offered for the exhibit was not unconditional. Culture Unstained, an activist group whose aim is “to end fossil fuel sponsorship of culture,” obtained Shell’s sponsorship contract with the Science Museum under freedom of information act laws. The contract stipulates that the museum could not take any action that would be seen “as discrediting or damaging the goodwill or reputation of the Sponsor.”
Fossil fuel companies are regular sponsors of museum exhibits, and cultural institutions in general, but their donations have come under increased scrutiny in recent years. U.K. activists have been staging regular protests at the British Museum for the past several years demanding it end its long-standing relationship with BP. Critics argue that allowing companies like BP to put their logos on museum walls elevates their status in society, perpetuates their social license to operate, and potentially influences curatorial decisions.
It’s clear what Shell had to gain in the case of the “Our Future Planet” exhibit. The exhibit centers on technologies that oil and gas companies like Shell say will allow them to keep selling fossil fuels while reducing their emissions. The exhibit will be up through the fall, when thousands of political leaders from all over the world will pass through the U.K. to attend the United Nation’s annual climate conference. As Grist’s Kate Yoder observed in a 2019 story about the oil industry’s relationship with museums, “Philanthropy isn’t just an avenue to dignify fortunes — it can also serve as an attempt to influence where society is headed.”
Visitors start the “Our Future Planet” exhibit with a journey through the “the oldest forms of carbon capture technology: trees and plants,” according to a promotional post on the Science Museum’s website. Next, they encounter a mechanical tree developed by Klaus Lackner, a professor at Arizona State University and pioneer of technology that captures carbon directly from the air. Later, they learn about attempts to capture carbon dioxide in rock dust, an approach called enhanced weathering. Finally, museumgoers are introduced to methods to capture carbon from the flue gas of fossil fuel–burning power plants and industrial plants, along with products that can be produced with that captured CO2, like concrete, yoga mats, and vodka.Activists from Extinction Rebellion chained to exhibit of Klaus Lackner’s Mechanical Tree at the ‘Our Future Planet’ exhibition JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
International research bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency say these kinds of solutions will be required to stabilize the climate. But the technologies are still nascent, and it is unclear whether they will become commercially viable or at what scale. Scientists who support carbon capture and carbon removal warn that they should not be seen as a replacement for rapidly cutting emissions with the technologies we have today.
Shell has made a commitment to reduce its emissions to net-zero by 2050, but its plan is to keep selling oil and gas while relying heavily on carbon capture and storage, as well as so-called nature-based solutions, like planting trees, to offset its emissions. In May, a Dutch court ruled that Shell’s plans were not in line with the Paris Agreement and ordered the company to cut emissions more quickly. Shell is appealing the verdict.
A museum exhibit that teaches people about carbon capture and carbon removal could be seen as a good thing, since research has shown the public is still largely confused about what these terms mean. But I would hope that it also invites visitors to think about the risks and challenges of these solutions in addition to their promise. I haven’t been to the exhibit myself, but a critic writing in the magazine New Scientist concluded, “The exhibition mostly gets the balance right between pessimism and optimism, although it could have gone further in showing how expensive and small scale this stuff is.”
A Shell spokesperson told Channel 4 News, “We fully respect the museum’s independence. That’s why its exhibition on carbon capture matters and why we supported it. Debate and discussion — among anyone who sees it — are essential.”
For what it’s worth, in a blog post on the museum’s website, exhibition advisor Bob Ward said the world faces an “urgent task” to reduce emissions and that “this will mean a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels as our primary source of energy.” Ward acknowledges that there are large uncertainties around the solutions presented in the exhibit, and the concern that counting on them could reduce ambition to cut emissions more rapidly. But he adds that “we are more likely to make a rapid and orderly transition to a zero-carbon economy if oil companies play a genuinely committed and active role.”
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Shell sponsored a museum exhibit on climate solutions. There were strings attached. on Aug 2, 2021.
For generations, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community has made its home along the shores of Michigan’s Lake Superior, developing a culture and livelihood closely tied to the waterbody, the largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world. Species such as salmon, lake trout, and walleye play a key role in the subsistence fishing tribe’s day-to-day life.
In the last few decades, however, pollutants like mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, have put fishing cultural traditions at risk in the Great Lakes. Now, scientists are warning there’s a new threat — PFAS, a group of man-made toxic substances also known as “forever chemicals” found in everyday household items.
For the first time, officials in Michigan and Wisconsin have issued a fish consumption advisory for PFAS in the Great Lakes. The chemicals, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, bioaccumulate in the environment — similar to DDT in the 1950s and 60s — building in concentration as they move up the food chain. They have been linked to health issues like reproductive and liver damage.
According to the new advisories, adults should limit their consumption of rainbow smelt, a fish that has been consumed by generations of Indigenous peoples, caught in Lake Superior to just one single 8-ounce serving per month. In a 2013 study, 87 percent of Keweenaw Bay Indian Community members surveyed indicated they relied on Lake Superior fish as a major food source or for their livelihood.
“It’s hard for the community,” Kathy Smith, a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and a habitat specialist for the tribe’s natural resources department, told the Traverse City Record-Eagle. She highlighted that the PFAS advisory adds to a number of fish consumption advisories that have been issued previously for species important to the community.
The warnings point to the increasing pervasiveness of PFAS in American lakes, rivers, and streams. In 2020, a study of 2,000 fish from across Michigan revealed that PFOS, a PFAS chemical, was found in 92 percent of the biological samples. An analysis published by the Environmental Working Group this week found that the number of industrial sites across the United States that use PFAS, and may be releasing it into the environment, is over 41,000. An analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2019 found that 14 out of 91 foods tested contained PFAS.
Citing the growing contamination nationwide, U.S. Representatives Democrat Debbie Dingell and Republican Fred Upton, both of Michigan, introduced the bipartisan PFAS Action Act of 2021 in April. Late last month, the bill passed in the House of Representatives 241 – 183. The law would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, to establish national standards for PFAS levels in drinking water and would designate PFOA and PFOS, two PFAS chemicals, as “hazardous,” thereby allowing the EPA to take action to clean up contaminated sites across the country and allocate $200 million for water utilities and wastewater treatment.
Upton and Dingell especially highlighted the threat PFAS has posed to Michigan families. In 2018, the chemicals were found in the drinking water for Parchment, Michigan, residents at 20 times the federal health advisory limit. The sample was collected 30 days before the public announcement was made, meaning residents were drinking the contaminated water for upwards of a month.
Some groups representing the water sector, including the American Water Works Association and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, disagree with the PFAS Action Act, saying that it would absolve polluters from the “polluter pays” structure of EPA Superfund cleanup sites and put the burden on water treatment facilities. Some Republicans have also voiced concerns about it becoming a “de facto ban” on PFAS chemicals that are used beneficially, like for contact lenses or medical safety gear.
But Christine Santillana, legislative counsel for Earthjustice, a public interest environmental nonprofit, said the evidence has been there for decades that PFAS is toxic, and action needs to be taken. “PFAS should absolutely be a top priority,” she told Grist, “and we need comprehensive legislation to ensure deadlines are put in place to protect public health and the environment from toxic PFAS being released into our air, soil, and water.”
A previous version of the PFAS Action Act stalled under Trump, but now has renewed hope with President Joe Biden’s support. The White House has said Biden will sign the bill if it reaches his desk. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has not revealed whether he will bring the bill to the Senate floor or not.
It’s unlikely to be taken up for a vote in this legislative session, according to Santillana. “We are pushing the Senate to take this up as soon as possible,” she told Grist, “but it’s unlikely they’ll do so this session given infrastructure priorities and budget reconciliation.”
Still, environmental leaders say getting the bill passed in the House was a meaningful step. “Getting Republicans on board is a big step,” said Santillana. The PFAS Action Act was signed off on by 23 Republicans. “Now it’s really the Senate’s turn to push this across the finish line,” she said.
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Congress is finally starting to do something about toxic PFAS chemicals on Aug 2, 2021.
As climate change and poor management cause greater water scarcity, Tehran and much of Iran are sinking from land subsidence.
Two fires, among lightning-sparked blazes burning in remote Northern California forests, prompt evacuation warnings and strain firefighting resources.
The U.S. Forest Service lets some blazes burn. California officials say that practices should be updated as blazes explode, partly because of climate change.