Rare Earths reach the entertainment industry

A retired U.S. marine sergeant growl: “We built computers. Robots. Unmanned armies. And no one ever asks what will happen when the enemy steals the keys?” It’s June 19th, 2025. China cuts off America’s rare earths supply after United States take down Chinese stock exchange. The world could be on the brink of war. This could be real life but the truth is that it is Call of Duty, Black Ops II. Since it is a shooting video game (released in November 2012), diplomacy is not an option here. But before starting to kill and annihilate any living being at sight, it would be nice to know the background.

The main idea of the storyline is based on the scarcity of rare earth elements, which are used in a wide range of high tech applications, from wind turbines to TVs, computers, cars, smartphones, MRI scanners and batteries.

How real is this scenario?

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, China is responsible for over 95 percent of worldwide supply of rare earth metals, REMs. In the recent past they have been using its monopoly of the industry to increase the price of REMs. Their share was reduced to 85 percent in 2012 with the reopening of the Molycorp mine in California and other recent mines. So, the narrative of the game doesn’t seem completely implausible.

It is possible that the scriptwriter team heard about the issue with REMs and the Chinese monopoly . It must have sounded as good to them that they decided to use it as a starting point for a first-person shooter videogame. Despite China’s current market dominance, Chinese reserves constitute only half of global rare earth deposits and other countries such as Brazil and Australia are beginning to exploit their deposits and become reliable suppliers in an increasingly diversified rare earth mineral marketplace. In the end, it is just a videogame and there are reasons enough to suppose that it won’t happen:

  1. By that time, in 2025, the United States as well as many other countries will have developed new processes and opened new mines.
  2. In history it is very uncommon that wars start because of absolute scarcities. So the price of the materials could rise but a war by that reason is very unlikely.
  3. Absolute scarcities are not likely to happen, but partial supply disruptions are more likely nowadays.

Rare Earths are not only in videogames However, rare earths are not only a source of inspiration for the videogame industry but also for novelists. Rare Earth is a novel written by Paul Mason in 2009 in which ONE nation holds most of world’s supply of rare earths. And that country, surprise, happens to be China.

Rare Earth by Paul Mason

Figure 1: Paul Mason’s novel

The story starts with a group of British journalists trying to film a ‘propaganda’ movie about the Chinese government’s fight against environmental depredation, which would be displayed in a programme sponsored by that government. The journalists are escorted by their Chinese minder and everything is going as planned, until they arrive, by accident, to a town whose residents complain about the terrible environmental conditions. From there, it all starts to spiral out of control.

Real life or science fiction?

This happens not only in Mason’s novel but also in real life. China began mining rare earths on a mass scale in the 80s and has recently begun to improve their lax environmental regulations. They also restricted their rare earths export quota in order to improve its environmental situation, among other reasons… Processing rare earths is not a clean business. The ores in which you find them contains radioactive materials such as thorium, and during processing these elements are dissolved in acid, which is then disposed into nature.

To produce 1 ton of rare earths, 2000 tons of toxic waste is also generated. Baotou Steel, the largest rare earth industrial base in China and the biggest in Inner Mongolia, produce 10 million tons of wastewater every year. In 2009, around tailing ponds were relocated to resettlement sites on the city’s outskirts by Baotou Steel. Additionally, they set up a waste managing warehouse controlled by 400 employees.

Rare earths is a classic case of how low the cost of environmental degradation is. From EREAN we are working on the creation of sustainable processes for the recycling of rare earths.

References

The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/rare-earth-mining-china-social-environmental-costs, consulted on 19/05/2014.

Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/11/05/call-of-duty-and-the-plot-point-about-the-chinese-rare-earths-monopoly/, consulted on 20/05/2014.

Counter Fire, http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/book-reviews/15516-paul-mason-rare-earth, consulted on 18/05/2014.

News China Tungsten, http://news.chinatungsten.com/en/rare-earth-news/17354-ren-296, consulted on 18/05/2014.

Discovering the revolutionary magnets

Dear reader,

In 1984 the revolutionizing magnetic properties of NdFeB were discovered simultaneously and independently by Dr. Masato Sagawa in Japan, and by Dr. John Croat in the USA. Both produced materials based on the same magnetic phase, but employed different processing routes.

The results of the different processing routes resulted in materials of roughly the same composition, with differing microstructures. These permanent magnets utilize cheaper and more abundant raw materials than the Samarium Cobalt magnets (SmCo), which was the dominant at the time.

State of art in 1984

Production of Sm-Co permanent magnets had been increasing steadily. They had become widely applied to the fields of the electronics industry. To obtain larger scale adaptation of strong permanent magnets, it was necessary to develop a material containing little or no Sm and Co due to the low availability of these elements. As alternative materials, there had been a growing interest in alloys consisting of Iron (Fe) and Rare Earths (RE), especially those of which large amounts were available: the light rare earths, LRE.

Due to that LRE and Fe binary compounds have high magnetic properties, they were strong candidates for high performance permanent magnets competing with the SmCo magnets.

However, the RE-Fe permanent magnets had not been realized yet due to three reasons: Fe and RE form few stable phases, they are difficult to magnetise, and they easily lose their magnetisation at high temperatures.

Adhering to the equilibrium, RE-Fe binary phases did not appear promising; so two alternative approaches where thought of to possibly achieve a breakthrough.

  1. Extend the search to metastable or non-equilibrium phases instead of limiting it within the equilibrium phases. This is the route followed by Croat.
  2. Extend the search to ternary or quaternary systems (adding one or two new elements to the mix) instead of limiting it within the binary system. Even though the LRE and Fe form few stable compounds, a variety of stable phases might exist in ternary or quaternary systems. This is the route followed by Sagawa.

Dr. John Croat of General Motors in the USA developed RE-Fe and RE-Fe-B alloys by using a route that tends to form metastable phases. Meanwhile, Dr. Masato Sagawa Sumitomo Special Metals in Japan synthesized numerous compounds based on RE-Fe and small amounts of other elements. Finally, he found a new ternary compound consisting of Nd, Fe and B with remarkable magnetic properties for a permanent magnet material.

Sumitomo Special Metals’ Route

In Japan, Sumitomo Special Metals developed a powder metallurgy processing route, which initially gave the highest ever observed energy product (the maximum amount of magnetic energy stored in a magnet).

The processing route for sintered NdFeB based magnets is shown in Figure 1. The as-cast ingot must first be broken into powder. This is achieved by exposing the ingot to hydrogen, which is absorbed at the surface. The hydrogen enters the material in the spaces between the atoms and causes an expansion which generates stress in the ingot and the alloy breaks down into a fine powder. The powder is then broken up further by a jet milling stage.

Each powder particle is a single crystal, which can be aligned in a magnetic field. This alignment is held in place by pressing the powder into a green compact, which is not fully dense. The compact is then heated in vacuum to at 1060 °C for 1 hour; sintering occurs and the compact densifies, with the assistance of a liquid formed by the melting of the Nd-rich phase. After sintering, the magnets are cooled down and then heat-treated in order to achieve the optimum magnetic properties.

The magnet must then be machined to get the right dimensions for the intended application. After this, the next stage in the processing is to provide a protective barrier on the surface of the magnets. Finally, the magnets are magnetised and tested prior to shipping to the customer.

Sintered Route

Figure 1: The processing route for sintered NdFeB permanent magnets

General Motors’ Route

Meantime, on the other side of the world General Motors developed a rapid solidification process to produce powder that afterwards would have used in resin bonded magnets.

The melt-spinning process which was used to produce a ribbon like powdered material appears in the Figure 2. In this process, molten alloy is ejected onto the surface of a rotating water cooled wheel, which cool down the material at a rate of one million °C/s. The microstructure and magnetic properties of the NdFeB ribbons formed are very sensitive to this cooling rate.

Melt spinning route

Figure 2: Schematic representation of the melt-spinning process and MQ magnet production

This powder cannot be sintered to produce fully dense magnets without destroying the magnetic properties, but can be employed in one of the following three ways:

MQ-I

The melt spun ribbon is blended with a resin to produce an isotropic bonded permanent magnet, what means that can be magnetised along any direction.

MQ-II

The powder is pressed at a temperature about 700 °C achieving a fully dense magnet with higher magnetic properties than MQ-I.

MQ-III

The material is heated in a die cavity and then it is slowly deformed. Such magnets are 100% dense and because of the alignment they have higher magnetic properties than MQ-II.

What did happen next?

Bonded and fully dense magnets have their own advantages and drawbacks. Bonded magnets will be selected if isotropic properties and low cost are required. Sintered magnet route should be selected if a high remanence (magnetization remaining after an exciting magnetic field has been removed) and anisotropy is required in large volume.

NdFeB immediately attracted considerable technological interest because of its excellent magnetic properties as well as economic advantages over Sm-Co materials. From EREAN we focus on both routes: sintered and resin bonded magnets.

References

J. J. Croat, J. F. Herbst, R. W. Lee and F. E. Pinkerton, F. E., “High-energy product Nd-Fe-B permanent magnets”. Applied Physics Letters, 44, 148-149 (1984). http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.94584

D. Brown, B. Ma and Z. Chen., “Developments in the processing and properties of NdFeB-type permanent magnets”. Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials, 248, 432-440 (2002). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0304-8853(02)00334-7

J. J. Croat, J. F. Herbst, R. W. Lee and F. E. Pinkerton, “Pr-Fe and Nd-Fe-based materials: A new class of high-performance permanent magnets”, J. Appl. Phys. 55, 2078 (1984). http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.333571

M. Sagawa, S. Fujimura, N. Togawa, H. Yamamoto and Y. Matsuura, “New Material for Permanent Magnets on a Base of Nd and Fe”, J. Appl. Phys.55, 2083 (1984). http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.333572

J. J. Croat, “Observation of large room‐temperature coercivity in melt‐spun Nd0.4Fe0.6”. Applied Physics Letters, 39, 357 (1981). http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.92728

GITAM, http://www.gitam.edu/eresource/Engg_Phys/semester_2/magnetic/hard.htm, consulted on 16/05/2014.

A. J. Williams, “Hydrogen absorption and desorption studies on NdFeB type alloys used for the production of permanent magnets”. Materials Science and Engineering PhD, University Of Birmingham (1994).

S. McCain, “Characterisation of the Aqueous Corrosion Process in NdFeB Melt Spun Ribbon and MQI Bonded Magnets”. Materials Science and Engineering PhD, University of Birmingham (2011). http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/3680/

E. P. Furlani, “Permanent Magnet and Electromechanical Devices. Materials, Analysis and Applications”. Academic Press, 52-53 (2001). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-012269951-1/50002-4

The curious case of dysprosium

It took 30 years for Francois de Boisbaudran to separate Dysprosium oxide from its mineral and he rightly named the element after the greek word Dysprositos meaning  “hard to get at”[1,2].  It is now more than a century since he has discovered dysprosium and he has been quite prophetic in naming the element. This blog post will talk about two interesting reports which predict stark demand-supply imbalance even in the short term.

Dysprosium is deployed in numerous applications like wind turbines, commercial lightings, hard discs etc.  The US Department of Energy’s “Critical material strategy” report [3] estimated the demand of a material using 3 key factors: Deployment, Market share, Material intensity*.  Based on these 3 key factors, they developed 4 different trajectories.   They developed these 4 trajectories by assuming two diametrically opposite cases of high market share, high level of global deployment and low market share and low level of global deployment. Top these 2 scenarios with low and high material intensity for each and you get 4 trajectories. Trajectory A and B represents the low penetration case and the C and D represents the high penetration case. The trajectories are nicely summed up in Fig 1.

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Fig 1: Explanation of trajectories from DOE’s “Critical material strategy” report of 2010 [3]

I had to pen down about these trajectories because what happens next will surprise you (sorry for the buzzfeed style).  As you can see from Fig 2, global demand exceeds projected supply in 2015 in all four cases!

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Fig 2: Dysprosium oxide future supply and demand prediction by DOE’s 2010 report [3]

 

If that is not a reason in itself for recycling, let me bolster my argument with another report.  A master thesis report titled “Can dysprosium shortage threaten green economy?” made in collaboration between Utrecht University and Fraunhofer ISI predicts that even after assuming 80% recycling of Dysprosium, a shortage can still be expected in short term [4]. The report systematically analyzes all the possible applications of dysprosium and makes 2 extreme cases of lower bound and upper bound. The former is when the use of dysprosium is at the lowest possible amount (3.55 wt%) in the magnets and the latter is at the highest possible amount (7.7 wt%) of usage. Growth of every single sector is predicted from various reports and the global supply is estimated based on various data available.  Fig 4 left) and right) are the estimates of dysprosium oxide demand in the abovementioned lower and upper bound scenario. Industrial motors, hybrid electric cars, electric bicycles and multi-layer ceramic capacitor are some of the important applications demanding dysprosium. At the lowest bound case, we can expect a 14,000 tons demand of dysprosium oxide by 2050 and the highest, a 60,000 tons  demand of the same.

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Fig 4 left) & right) Estimate dysprosium oxide demand in lower and upper bound scenario viz until 2050 [4]

They have also made similar figures assuming 80% recycling is carried out. What happens when the supply for each year is pitted against demand? Your guess is right. Even in the low bound, high recycling scenario there is a demand supply imbalance with demand exceeding the supply.  So dear readers, the need to recycle rare earth elements can’t be overemphasized more but when it comes to Dysprosium, there is this absolute need to recycle and also the necessity to go beyond recycling!

  1. http://www.livescience.com/38292-dysprosium.html
  2. http://www.rsc.org/periodic-table/element/66/dysprosium
  3. http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/edg/news/documents/criticalmaterialsstrategy.pdf
  4. https://www.academia.edu/1646290/Can_a_dysprosium_shortage_threaten_the_green_economy
  5. * Definitions of the terms used in DOE report.

Deployment: total units of the generic clean energy technology in a given year

Market Share: the percentage of installations captured by a specific clean energy technology

Material intensity: demand for the material in each unit of the clean energy component

 

 

The wind farms – green or not?

In the rush of finding an alternative renewable sources of energy, particularly for the replacement of  fossil fuel, wind gets a lot of attention as the next cheap and environmental friendly energy source. Regarding the European wind technology  we can surely say – a great success story! Over the passing years it has evolved from an industry making small and simple machines into a technology capable to compete with the conventional forms of power generation. It is obvious that development of the wind farms plays and will play a major role in the shift towards renewable energies. Why then there is still so much controversy around this subject?

 

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Photo: modernfarmer.com

 

Looking around different services, portals, and any other kinds of information about the wind energy we can easily find many positive arguments and advantages of this renewable energy source. Reading a huge amount of them, I am admiring our potential of doing something big from something really small, our creativity and imagination, and I smile to myself, thinking that among all of these we are still fair with everything around, even nature. I say great! and go further. After a while I am smiling less… I am discovering another side of the wind farms, I would even say, the darker one…

Wind energy, the fastest-growing power resource in the world, maybe does not leach pollutants or gobble up finite resources, but wind turbines generate noise and can pose a hazard to birds and other wildlife. It is apparent that the wind turbine issue has become very polarized with widely varying positions being adopted. The opponents of wind farms claim that building such wind turbines zones will blight the regional view, kill birds, and harm fishing and tourism. As an example the offshore wind turbines can be given. They require solid foundations that are usually made of heavy posts driven into the seabed with a hydraulic hammer. With each hammer action, energy is transmitted into the surrounding water as sound. Unfortunately, it is more recognized as noise that has negative effects on some species, such as whales, dolphins and porpoises. It damages hearing and driving away prey species what is definitely adverse from the environmental point of view.

 

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Photo: www.rspb.org.uk

 

Another issue concerns our health, because some of the wind farms are relatively close to the population centers. Human-health impacts are mostly related to continuing sleep disruption, fatigue, annoyance producing increased levels of stress and/or psychological distress, headaches, tinnitus, earache, difficulties with balance, cognitive impairments, hypertension, palpitations, nausea, and compromised quality of life. All of these cause that the wind farms provoke people’s fears and anxieties about new technologies and this is a really bad sign for the future…

In other hand, people in favor of the wind farms believe that the benefit of using wind energy is much greater than all the negatives hiding behind. It is plentiful, renewable, widely distributed, and uses very little land. Wind energy, when compared to coal, oil and gas is less harmful to the environment. It produces zero tons of carbon dioxide a year, which is the gas associated with global warming.

It is definitely difficult to judge if the wind farms are green or not, having so many controversial statements around. Like all the forms of renewable energy, also wind has its advantages and disadvantages. We may feel confused, because probably we do not find any strong argument that can convince us to be in the green wind energy team or contrary, in opposite one. Nevertheless, birds can easily change their flight route and easily avoid obstacles. People can easily adapt to the wind farms as they adapted to the horseless carriages 100 years ago. If these are the only concerns that hold you back to say yes, the wind farms are green! you should also consider that there is also no reason to think that the wind technology, which is already great, will not improve its performance over time. Why? Just look what has happened with computers and communications in the past years…

 

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Photo: homework.uoregon.edu

 

 

Interested? Read a little bit more then:

  1. Wind power controversy https://www.wind-watch.org/documents/wind-power-controversy/
  2. Wind energy development – environmental concerns http://www.windeis.anl.gov/guide/concern/index.cfm
  3. Wind farms controversial http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/not_all_proposed_large_wind_energy_farms_are_controversial_and_there_may_be

 

Recycling of magnets on industrial scale

WRITTEN BY: TOM VANDER HOOGERSTRAETE

Recently, I had to write an introduction for my article which talks about the recycling of rare earths from NdFeB magnets.1 Writing  a literature study on rare-earth recycling from NdFeB magnets seemed redundant, as two very interesting reviews on this topic have just been published.2,3 So I figured it would be more interesting to find information about how many companies are recycling rare-earth magnets right now. In my search for interesting and citable information, I found some interesting pieces that I want to share.

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