Growing demand, Strategic importance and scarcity of Rare Earth Elements is driving search for alternatives and mitigation strategies
REEs are a series of chemical elements found in the Earth’s crust that are essential components of many technologies, including electronics, computer and communication systems, transportation, health care, and national defense. Rare Earths Elements (REE) are incorporated into many sophisticated technologies with both commercial and defense applications including smartphones and flatscreen televisions to hybrid cars, wind-turbine power systems to communications equipment. These are referred to as “rare” because although relatively abundant in total quantity, they appear in low concentrations in the earth’s crust and extraction and processing is both difficult and costly.
The top rare earth producing countries are China (105,000 tons), Australia (10,000 tons), US(4,100 tons), Russia(2,500 tons), Thailand(1,100 tons) and Malaysia (200 tons). Some estimates are that China now produces about 90- 95% of the world’s rare earth oxides and is the majority producer of the world’s two strongest magnets, samarium cobalt (SmCo) and neodymium iron boron (NeFeB) permanent, rare earth magnet. The 70% of the world’s light rare earths coming from a single mining operation at the Bayan Obo deposit in Inner Mongolia.
China imposes several different types of unfair export restraints on the materials at issue in today’s consultations request, including export duties, export quotas, export pricing requirements as well as related export procedures and requirements.
“Because China is a top global producer for these key inputs, its harmful policies artificially increase prices for the inputs outside of China while lowering prices in China; This price dynamic creates significant advantages for China’s producers when competing against U.S. producers – both in China’s market and in other markets around the world,” found Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The improper export restraints also contribute to creating substantial pressure on U.S. and other non-Chinese downstream producers to move their operations, jobs, and technologies to China.
It has even used this power as an economic weapon, reportedly cutting off rare earth supplies to Japan in September 2010 over a long-standing territorial dispute. After several years of investigation, the WTO concluded in summer 2014 that China was indeed violating its free trade commitments. In response to the ruling, China announced in early 2015 that it would lift the export quotas.
The demand for REEs has grown significantly over recent years, stimulating an emphasis on developing economically feasible approaches for domestic REE recovery. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) selected four projects to move on to a second phase of research in their efforts to advance recovery of rare earth elements (REE) from coal and coal byproducts. DOE will invest $17.4 million to develop and test REE recovery systems originally selected and designed under phase 1 of a prior funding opportunity announcement through DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy (FE).
Rare earth elements consist of 17 elements on the periodic table, including 15 elements beginning with atomic number 57 (lanthanum) and extending through number 71 (lutetium), as well as two other elements having similar properties (yttrium and scandium).
Rare earths are divided into two groups: light rare earth elements (LREE) – lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, and samarium, and heavy rare earth elements (HREE) – europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, scandium, and yttrium.
From 2016 through 2020 demand for rare earth elements(REE): neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, and lanthanum will grow relatively strongly, but, from 2020 through 2025 the rate of global demand growth for these rare earths will accelerate year-over-year, resulting in major annual demand increases by 2025 that can only be satisfied by the continuous and accelerated development of new mines. REE demand will boom from 2020 onwards as growth rates of top end-use categories including electric vehicles, wind turbines and other hi-tech applications accelerate, according to a new report by Adamas Intelligence.
China produces more than 85% of the global supply of rare earths and the country is also the largest consum. In 2015, China’s consumption was led by magnets (35%), abrasives (18%), and catalysts (15%). As China’s insatiable demand for rare earth elements continues to grow over the coming ten years, China’s domestic production will struggle to keep up in all scenarios examined herein, leading the nation to become a net importer of certain rare earths at the expense of the rest of the world’s supply security. “In fact, by 2025 China’s domestic demand for neodymium oxide for permanent magnets alone is poised to exceed total global production of neodymium oxide by 9,000 tonnes in our base case scenario, highlighting the imminent need for additional sources of supply,” according to report.
The world may face problems of Critical Material supply, but these concerns are not translated into product design activity, even though history suggests that product design could play a role in finding solutions to Critical Materials problems, says Delft researcher David Peck.
How Are Rare Earths Used in Defense Applications?
Rare earth materials play an essential role in several critical weapons components and systems such as precision-guided munitions, electric ship drives, command and control centers, and aircraft, tanks, and missile systems.
It has been estimated that DOD uses less than 5% of domestic consumption of rare earths. Rare earth elements are found in two types of commercially available, permanent magnet materials. They are samarium cobalt (SmCo), and neodymium iron boron (NdFeB).
NdFeB magnets are considered the world’s strongest permanent magnets and are essential to many military weapons systems. SmCo retains its magnetic strength at elevated temperatures and is ideal for military technologies such as precision-guided missiles, smart bombs, and aircraft. The superior strength of NdFeB allows for the use of smaller and lighter magnets in defense weapon systems.
The use of rare earth elements in a variety of defense-related applications:
1. Guidance and control: Electric motors and Actuators e.g. Fin actuators in missile guidance and control systems; smart bombs, UAVs
2. Electric motors: Compact, powerful permanent magnets for Disk drive motors installed in aircraft, tanks, missile systems, and command and control centers
3. Laser targeting and weapons systems: Amplification of energy and resolution for enemy mine detection, interrogators, underwater mines, and countermeasures
4. Communications: Amplification, enhanced resolution of signals in Satellite communications, radar, and sonar on submarines and surface ships; Radiation and Chemical detection
5. Electronic Warfare & Directed Energy weapons : Energy storage/ Density amplification, capacitance e.g.Long range Acoustic Device and Area Denial systems, Jammers, NiMetal Hydride battery
6. Optical equipment and speakers.
Costly to Extract, Complex Manufacturing process
While relatively abundant in the earth, rare earth elements are costly to extract due to their relatively low concentrations per volume of earth extracted, making production viable only at extremely large scales.
The rare earth production process is complex and expensive. The stages of production consist of mining, separating, refining, alloying, and manufacturing rare earths into end-use items and components, as described in the GAO report.
• The first stage is the actual mining, where the ore is taken out of the ground from the mineral deposits.
• The second stage is separating the ore into individual rare earth oxides.
• The third stage is refining the rare earth oxides into metals with different purity levels; oxides can be dried, stored, and shipped for further processing into metals.
• The fourth stage is forming the metals, which can be processed into rare earth alloys.
• The fifth stage is manufacturing the alloys into devices and components, such as permanent magnets.
US Department of Defense pursues a three-pronged strategy to secure supplies of rare earth elements, which consists of diversification of supply, pursuit of substitutes, and a focus on reclamation of waste as part of a larger U.S. Government recycling effort
Alternatives to Chinese supply
As a result of the increased demand and tightening restrictions on exports of the metals from China, some countries are stockpiling rare earth resources. Searches for alternative sources in Australia, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, Tanzania, Greenland, and the United States are ongoing
Kazakhstan, the world’s top producer of uranium, is now entering the rare earths discussion because both heavy and light rare earths are commonly found in the tailings of uranium mines. In 2012, the country’s state-owned nuclear company Kazatomprom received investment from Japanese corporation Sumitomo to build a processing facility that will eventually produce 1,500 tonnes of rare earth oxides a year.
Currently, REEs are extracted from the two mined minerals mentioned: bastnasite and monazite. Rare earth manganese nodules have been found beneath the Atlantic Ocean. A Popular Science article reported that “Last summer the UN’s International Seabed Authority issued the first deep sea exploration permits, allowing companies to start actively looking for places to mine nodules and other sources of rare earth elements from the ocean floor.”
US Scientists have figured out a better way to extract rare earth elements from coal waste
It’s important to find new sources and more efficient methods for extracting them. US scientists have developed chemical process known as an ion exchange to separate them from the byproducts of coal production. It involves rinsing the coal with a special solution that releases the REEs bound to it.
“We have known for many decades that rare earth elements are found in coal seams and near other mineral veins,” said one of the team, Sarma Pisupati from Pennsylvania State University. “However, it was costly to extract the materials and there was relatively low demand until recently… We wanted to take a fresh look at the feasibility of extracting REEs from coal because it is so abundant in the US.”
“Essentially, REEs are sticking to the surface of molecules found in coal, and we use a special solution to pluck them out,” said Pisupati. “We experimented with many solvents to find one that is both inexpensive and environmentally friendly.” They found Ammonium sulphate to be the most effective solvent, “We were able to very easily extract 0.5 percent of REEs in this preliminary study using a basic ion exchange method in the lab,”
U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) selected four projects
The projects, expected to be completed by 2020, fall under two areas of interest: (1) bench-scale technology to economically separate, extract, and concentrate mixed REEs from coal and coal byproducts, including aqueous effluents; and (2) pilot-scale technology to economically separate, extract, and concentrate mixed REEs from coal and coal byproduct solids.
The following two bench-scale projects were selected under area of interest 1:
· The University of North Dakota Institute for Energy Studies (Grand Forks, ND) will use North Dakota subbituminous lignite coal and coal-related material as feedstock to test their REE recovery system. In addition to producing REEs, the team plans to recover other material from the lignite feedstock to produce one or more value-added products. $2.75 million
· West Virginia University Research Corporation (Morgantown, WV) will use acid mine drainage solids as a feedstock for recovery of REEs and other useful materials. The solids are from Northern Appalachian and Central Appalachian bituminous coal seams in West Virginia. $2.66 million
Two pilot scale-projects were selected under area of interest 2:
· Physical Sciences, Inc. (Andover, MA) will use coal fly ash physically processed near Trapp, KY. as their feedstock. The fly ash is a byproduct of combusting Central Appalachian bituminous coal in a power plant boiler. The select portion will be shipped to a Pennsylvania location for subsequent processing to produce the final rare earth product. In addition, researchers will evaluate recovery of other useful materials from the fly ash. $6 million
· The University of Kentucky Research Foundation (Lexington, KY) will use two sources of coal preparation (coal washing) byproducts as feedstock for recovery of REEs. The team will also recover dry, fine coal from the feedstock material. The first location for installation and testing of the pilot plant will be at a coal preparation plant in Perry County, KY that processes Central Appalachian bituminous coal. The second location for testing of the pilot plant will be at a coal preparation plant that processes Illinois Basin bituminous coal near Nebo, KY. $6 million
Slovenian scientists in breakthrough on rare earth technology
“A group of scientists from the Jožef Stefan Institute (IJS) have helped bring about an important breakthrough on technology that will reduce the use of rare earth elements in key components of electric motors,” as reported by STA.
The breakthrough enables a 16-fold reduction in the use of rare earth elements in the production of high-energy magnets. This greatly reduces the costs of such magnets, which are essential components in electric vehicles and turbines.
The breakthrough was made as part of the EU-funded Romeo project, in which IJS scientists spent two years researching ways to reduce dependence on what are often referred to as “technology metals”.
The project was implemented with the help of commercial partners Siemens and Valeo as well as Slovenian automotive parts maker Kolektor, car maker Daimler and magnet producer Vacuumschmelze.
It was co-funded with around EUR 4m in EU money with the main goal of responding to the crisis on the market of rare earth materials caused by Chinese restrictions on exports, which prompted a massive spike in prices in 2009.
Magnetic nanoparticles that could offer alternative to rare Earth magnets synthesized
A team of scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University has synthesized a powerful new magnetic material that could reduce the dependence of the United States and other nations on rare earth elements produced by China.
The new material consists of nanoparticles containing iron, cobalt and carbon atoms with a magnetic domain size of roughly 5 nanometers. It can store information up to 790 kelvins with thermal and time-stable, long-range magnetic order, which could have a potential impact for data storage application. When collected in powders, the material exhibits magnetic properties that rival those of permanent magnets that generally contain rare earth elements.
Permanent magnets, specifically those containing rare earth metals, are an important component used by the electronics, communications and automobile industries, as well as in radars and other applications.
Additionally, the emergence of green technology markets — such as hybrid and electric vehicles, direct drive wind turbine power systems and energy storage systems — have created an increased demand for permanent magnets.
“The discovery opens the pathway to systematically improving the new material to outperform the current permanent magnets,” said Shiv Khanna, Ph.D., a commonwealth professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
New metal alloy could yield green cooling technologies, RIT scientist explores alternatives to rare-earth magnets
A promising new metal alloy system could lead to commercially viable magnetic refrigerants and environmentally friendly cooling technologies, according to Casey Miller, head of RIT’s materials science and engineering program.
The materials use magnetic fields to change a refrigerant’s temperature without the coolant gases associated with global warming. The thermodynamic phenomenon, called “magnetocaloric effect,” makes magnetic refrigeration an environmentally friendly and efficient alternative to current cooling technologies.
The alloy is a substitute for metals made from rare-earth elements, predominantly produced in China and increasingly used in modern magnets .Transition metals typically offer supply chain stability and are cheaper by weight than rare-earths, they said.
“Our work is a great example of President Obama’s Materials Genome Initiative in action,” Miller said. “We created alloys containing four and five different elements whose properties helped our theory collaborators develop a calculation that predicts the magnetic properties of a larger set of compounds that have not yet been synthesized. Now we have identified hundreds of new alloy combinations that could be useful.”
Miller and his colleagues investigated the family of metal compounds known as “high entropy alloys.” This class of emergent materials holds potential for advanced manufacturing and possess hardness and resistance to wear and corrosion, the authors found.
Another recently developed source of rare earths is electronic waste and other wastes that have significant rare earth components. New advances in recycling technology have made extraction of rare earths from these materials more feasible, and recycling plants are currently operating in Japan, where there is an estimated 300,000 tons of rare earths stored in unused electronics. In France, the Rhodia group is setting up two factories, in La Rochelle and Saint-Fons, that will produce 200 tons of rare earths a year from used fluorescent lamps, magnets and batteries
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