Here's how America could solve a toxic waste crisis in Florida and reduce its dependence on Chinese rare earths and uranium from the former USSR with one weird trick:…
Residents around Tampa Bay in Florida are facing evacuation orders and a state of emergency after a dam holding radioactive fertilizer waste started leaking, threatening a breach and a 20ft wall of water:…
Florida and other parts of the southeastern U.S. have for decades been just one big rainstorm away from this sort of environmental crisis, because of more than a billion tons of phosphogypsum stacked up as waste material from the fertilizer industry.
Although it's pretty similar to the gypsum that's used in plaster and as a soil improver, you can't use this stuff because it also contains trace amounts of uranium and radium, making it too radioactive for everyday use.

However, it also contains something else: rare earths.
You might have heard about rare earths because of concerns about how China dominates the market in these elements, which have a host of critical high-tech applications.

IMO, Beijing's attempts to weaponize the rare earths market have backfired:…
Having said that, some of them are genuinely critical in defense applications, so the U.S. government is right to seek ways to seek alternative sources of supply outside of China:…
Florida's phosphogypsum offers a great way to kill multiple birds with one stone. It's about 0.2% rare earths, according to a 2017 study. With more than a billion tons of the stuff, that's enough on its own to supply the world's needs for a decade:
Here's what the U.S. government should be doing. At present, Florida phosphogypsum is radioactive to about 0.4 becquerels per gram, above an EPA limit of 0.37bq/g. If you can get the radioactive elements out of it, though, it's good fertilizer and building material.
There's been dozens of lab experiments laying out ways to do this over the past decade, but none of them have been scaled up to commercial levels because gypsum, uranium and rare earths prices tend to be pretty low.

That's where government needs to step in.
Phosphogypsum separation hasn't taken off because it's not very viable for private companies to invest in it. But meanwhile the public sector is spending large sums monitoring and maintaining the waste stacks, while land values and human health are put at risk.
With the Biden administration launching a major infrastructure plan last week including $111 billion for cleaning up the U.S. water supply and replace lead pipes, this is precisely the sort of project that needs a kick from government spending.
The chemicals in those phosphogypsum piles are worthless all mixed up together, but once separated they're useful.

The gypsum and ammonium sulphate can be sold to the agricultural and construction industries. The rare earths can go into high-tech manufacturing.
Even the uranium and radium can get used. The former can fuel military and civilian reactors, where America is currently dependent on supplies from Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan. The latter is useful as medical isotopes, particularly for cutting-edge cancer treatments.
One of the last acts of the Trump-era EPA was to permit the use of raw phosphogypsum in road construction, a purpose that's been banned for decades. The justification leaned heavily on the fact that the current stacking of this waste is already a problem:…
Rather than see the current regulations whittled away in that manner, the U.S. should confront the problem head-on and fund efforts to clear up and separate this waste.
One small side note. The rare earths issue is framed, with justification, in terms of the rising great power competition between the U.S. and China. One terrible side-effect of this tension is a rising wave of anti-Asian attacks and sentiment:…
That manifests not only in the form of physical and verbal assaults on Asian-Americans, but in the form of lower-level prejudice and suspicion of Chinese and Chinese-American scientists and academics:…
It's worth remembering that much of what we know about the rare earths potential of phosphogypsum comes from the work of Chinese and Chinese-American researchers.

That paper on Florida rare earths I cited upthread? Its citation is "Liang, Zhang, Jin & DePaoli (2017)".
It's hardly surprising that there's a lot of Chinese expertise in rare earths, given how much the country has dominated supply in recent decades.
But it should be a reminder that if the U.S. wants to be secure against a more aggressive Chinese government, it should be more open and welcoming of Chinese people as researchers and migrants for self-interested as well as moral reasons.
If the U.S. had treated Hungarian Jewish scientists in the 1930s the way it's treating Chinese scientists now, it might never have developed the atomic bomb and won the Cold War arms race. Antiracism isn't just a moral good. It's a great national security strategy, too. (ends)
Usual postscript: Do please read my column for the full story!…

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More from @davidfickling

1 Apr
Don't celebrate just yet. Covid isn't over — and the worst if it may still lie ahead of us:…
It's clear that much of the world is thinking about this pandemic as something that's approaching its end.

More and more I'm seeing it talked about in the past tense. Google searches for "after Covid" are running ahead of "Covid symptoms": Image
But the brutal truth is that the rate of new infections rose nearly 50% during March.

They're now running at a daily rate we never saw in this pandemic until the winter surge in mid-November: Image
Read 13 tweets
31 Mar
My spiciest infrastructure bill take is that the "clean energy R&D" funding is basically a subsidy for annoying nuclear obsessives on Twitter.
Nuclear has historically sucked up the lion's share of energy R&D (and still gets the biggest slice today) because it's very complex and basic science-y, done by white lab coats not blue collars etc.… Image
The generous funding for nuclear research combined with its fairly fundamental economic weaknesses means that it's a top-heavy field, with huge expertise in "paper reactors" even while real-world technology is basically updated 1960s reactor designs.
Read 7 tweets
30 Mar
One yardstick for measuring the White House's $3 trillion-over-10-years infrastructure plan and Congressional Democrats' $10tr counter-offer is that China issues about $500 billion in infrastructure debt each year.
This year's limit of ¥3.65tr ($560bn) is actually a cut relative to last year, when infra spending was boosted post-Covid:…
To be clear, those are figures for local government bonds in aggregate — but almost all of that goes on infrastructure, which receives non-local government financing in addition.

It sounds like the various U.S. infra plans will include some social-ish spending, too.
Read 4 tweets
29 Mar
Think the Ever Given was a monster ship? The next generation of container vessels is going to make it look like a bath toy, pushing up against hard limits for the size of boats:…
Container ships have again and again defied predictions that their size was approaching maximum limits.

One famed 1999 study argued that the biggest possible ships would be able to carry 18,000 containers, or TEUs (20ft-equivalent units). The Ever Given carries 20,124 TEUs.
At the time it launched in 2018, only a handful of 20,000+ TEU ships were on the sea, and the first had been launched less than a year ago.

There's now more than 100 of that size sailing or under construction. The biggest ones are 24,000 TEUs, 20% bigger than the Ever Given!
Read 36 tweets
26 Mar
Do you want a thread exploring the links between:

*that ship stuck in Suez
*the Trojan War
*the founding of Singapore
*and Chinese foreign policy, from the Belt and Road and South China Sea to Taiwan?

Of course you do!…
The Ever Given getting stuck while traversing the Suez Canal is playing out as a sort of slapstick routine.

But it underlines a serious point that's in many ways the axis on which modern geopolitical tensions turn.

If you can control ocean straits, you can control the world.
That's been the case since ancient times.

We don't know that much about what caused the Trojan War or whether it even happened, but there's lots of evidence that historical Troy was a trading centre of huge importance to ancient Greek states:
Read 53 tweets
24 Mar
This is amazing.

England has more forest now than it did at the time of the Black Death.

The U.K. as a whole probably has more than during the Norman Conquest.….
("Probably" because the data gets very patchy outside of England as you go earlier. But it's hard to believe that 1086 Scotland had more forest than 2020 Scotland, given where it was in 1350)
Other crazy facts: Japan and South Korea are more densely forested than Brazil and Russia.…
Read 5 tweets

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