Rare Earth Metals from the Earth

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In the days of the internal combustion engine, in order to make a car perform better, the solution was to install a bigger engine. Now, at the age of hybrids and electrics, the solution may be to install motors with more powerful magnets.

Up until 1980, the most powerful magnets were built from an alloy containing samarium and cobalt. This composition created issues, as samarium is among the rare earth metal elements. It is also too expensive to refine while the cobalt came from war torn areas in Africa.

In 1982, a magnet was created at General Motors from neodymium. While neodymium is also a rare earth metal, it is more common compared to cobalt and samarium. This element, when combined with iron and boron in a cheap process, resulted in very powerful magnets.

Neodymium is ideal to be material for magnet with its ability to retain a magnetic charge during driving conditions. Adding dysprosium to the neodymium-iron-boron mix then creates a high performance magnet able to perform at high temperatures.

With the electric vehicle revolution, the demand for neodymium has sharply increased not only for vehicles but also for consumer electronics such as computer hard drives and audio speaker systems. Currently, 90 percent of the world’s production of rare earth metals comes from China. Now, with very strict controls, prices per kilogram of the elements rose to U.S.$500 per kilogram in 2011.

Prices have since reduced, but the supply may be coming to an end, requiring many to seek alternatives to fuel the future. Ventures have been cropping up, in the United States and Australia to fill the demand as China slows down its very own production.

Other moves include recycling rare earth metals from used car parts, such as the nickel-metal-hydride batteries in hybrids. These used car parts contain small amounts of neodymium together with cerium and lanthanum. In another move, other companies said that the next generation of induction motors would not use rare earth magnets.

In a report from the Department of Energy dated 2011, there are five rare earth metals vital for national security as well as continuation of the clean energy industries. These include neodymium and dysprosium. In response, the advanced research agency of the U.S. Energy Department introduced the Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies program, allowing for $22 million in grant money to promising research projects.

The other options would be veering away from permanent magnet motors and going into induction motors, where a magnetic field is created to allow the motor’s shaft to rotate. This is clearly the future of rare earth metals on Earth.