Mastery of rare-earth elements vital to America's security

Mar 16, 2010
During a recent hearing of the Investigations & Oversight Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology, Karl A. Gschneidner Jr., US Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory senior metallurgist and acknowledged leader in the rare earth field, demonstrated the benefits that added expertise in rare-earth alloying would bring the nation by holding up a neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnet, which he and his colleagues recently created at the Ames Laboratory, using a revolutionary new process that was also developed at the Lab. Credit: U.S. Dept. of Energy's Ames Laboratory

Karl A. Gschneidner Jr., a senior metallurgist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory, today cautioned members of a Congressional panel that "rare-earth research in the USA on mineral extraction, rare-earth separation, processing of the oxides into metallic alloys and other useful forms, substitution, and recycling is virtually zero."

Rare-earth elements are critical components in the great majority of America's high-tech commercial and military products. Their vital role in our nation's economic and was underscored by today's hearing of the Investigations & Oversight Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology, which was devoted entirely to the topic.

To optimize the use of rare earths in current and future products, scientists combine rare earths with other elements to create alloys intended for specific purposes. Yet the United States and other nations have ceded much of this alloying knowledge to China, Gschneidner said.

During the hearing, Gschneidner, an acknowledged leader in the field, demonstrated the benefits that added expertise in rare-earth alloying would bring the nation by holding up a neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnet, which he and his colleagues, including Rick Schmidt, principal scientist emeritus, recently created at the Ames Laboratory, using a revolutionary new process that was also developed at the Lab.

However, current methods used to manufacture the magnets produce hazardous byproducts. In contrast, the Ames Lab process eliminates production of these byproducts. Also significant, the Ames Laboratory process has the potential to enable the United States to produce neodymium-iron-boron magnets less expensively.

Global sales of neodymium-iron-boron magnet products total $4.1 billion. Such magnets include the rare-earth element, neodymium, and they can be found in a wide array of electronic and electrical components.

Cheaper, greener magnets hint at other advanced technologies, such as improved batteries and magnetic refrigeration, that could result from increased research into rare-earth materials.

Gschneidner, who was honored by Congress in 2007 in advance of his receiving the Acta Materialia Gold Medal, the top international award in the field of materials science, is perhaps best known for advancing another rare-earth dependent technology, magnetic refrigeration.

Though little known outside of research circles, rare-earth magnetic alloys can be used to manufacture highly efficient and green cooling devices that Gschneidner and others believe could reduce the nation's energy consumption by 5 percent, if universally adopted.

"Europe and China are moving rapidly in this area," Gschneidner told panel members, "the USA needs to put together a strong, cohesive effort to retain our disappearing leadership in this technology."

Game-changing breakthroughs in magnetic refrigeration technology that, in turn, have allowed other nations to aggressively develop it, were in large part the result of efforts by Gschneidner and his team of Ames Laboratory researchers who succeeded in creating new alloys of the rare-earth element gadolinium.

Scientists use the term rare-earth elements to describe 17 elements, including: scandium and yttrium, plus the 15 so-called lanthanides. The latter group appears as element numbers 57-71 on the periodic table.

Explore further: Deconstruction of avant-garde cuisine could lead to even more fanciful dishes

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

China tries to calm unease over rare earths curbs

Sep 03, 2009

(AP) -- A Chinese official tried to calm unease about curbs on exports of rare earths used in clean energy products and superconductors, saying Thursday that sales will continue but must be limited to reduce damage to China's ...

Towards the magnetic fridge

Apr 21, 2006

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have discovered a material that gives a whole new complexion to the term 'fridge magnet'. When this alloy is placed in a magnetic field, it gets colder. Karl Sandeman and his co-workers ...

Recommended for you

Characterizing an important reactive intermediate

7 hours ago

An international group of researchers led by Dr. Warren E. Piers (University of Calgary) and Dr. Heikki M. Tuononen (University of Jyväskylä) has been able to isolate and characterize an important chemical ...

Surfaces that communicate in bio-chemical Braille

7 hours ago

A Braille-like method that enables medical implants to communicate with a patient's cells could help reduce biomedical and prosthetic device failure rates, according to University of Sydney researchers.

New material steals oxygen from the air

Sep 30, 2014

Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have synthesized crystalline materials that can bind and store oxygen in high concentrations. Just one spoon of the substance is enough to absorb all the ...

User comments : 6

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Supermegadope
not rated yet Mar 16, 2010
I believe they are using rare earth magnets at CERN , niobium if I remember correctly. This will be the next gold rush.
sstritt
2 / 5 (1) Mar 16, 2010
China controls the vast majority of rare earth production. The day will soon come when they will no longer sell us the neodymium, but use it all themselves to make the magnets to generate the electricity to power the electric cars to sell to us!
Goodbye green jobs! Goodbye Detroit!
Royale
5 / 5 (1) Mar 17, 2010
China will end up being the next super power anyway. At least this guy is trying, i'd like to give him some credit there. Let's not let our number 1 status become so outsourced that other countries do everything for us. Otherwise when they stop the end is nigh for us being the leader in anything. (Except maybe corn production).
jerryd
not rated yet Mar 19, 2010
EV's didn't use rare earths for 130 yrs and will do fine without them. Same with wind gens. But the US and many other places have them too. Rare earth is not that rare. Just China produced it like lithium that others stopped as it wasn't profitable. Now it is again and new mines are opening and old ones reopening.
Parsec
not rated yet Mar 20, 2010
EV's didn't use rare earths for 130 yrs and will do fine without them. Same with wind gens. But the US and many other places have them too. Rare earth is not that rare. Just China produced it like lithium that others stopped as it wasn't profitable. Now it is again and new mines are opening and old ones reopening.


Large wind generators use up to 3 tons of rare earths each. Some rare earths are not very rare, some are.
Sanescience
not rated yet Mar 22, 2010
Do not be so jealous of China's rare earth production, though state owned mining was able to undercut world wide production, it came at great cost to their environment (that is partially how they produce it so cheaply) and though they now supply 95% of world demand, they are finally forcing themselves to scale back production to "conserve resources" and reduce pollution. Though the best possible result for China would be a shortage that raises prices, that will probably not be the case. Several enterprises are starting up new mining operations, including at the world's richest proven reserve of "rare earth" metals, in... (drum roll) Mountain Pass, California, USA.

http://www.reuter...20090831