US breakthrough could solve rare earth metal shortage
Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory claim to have made a breakthrough that could alleviate the technology world’s reliance on China for some rare earth metals.
Rare earth materials are used in a wide variety of technology components, but China produces the majority of the world’s supply, leading to concerns over possible shortages and prices hikes.
The Ames researchers say they have found a reliable way to recycle neodymium, a material used in advanced magnets, including in hard drives.
“Now the goal is to make new magnet alloys from recycled rare earths. And we want those new alloys to be similar to alloys made from unprocessed rare earth materials,” said Ryan Ott, the Ames Laboratory scientist leading the research.
These are indistinguishable from rare earths that have been mined and so can be used in any application
“It appears that the processing technique works well. It effectively removes rare earths from commercial magnets.”
In a process that sounds surprisingly simple, the researchers harvest three rare earth materials used in magnets – neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium – by mixing them with magnesium and blasting them with heat from a radio frequency furnace.
“These are indistinguishable from rare earths that have been mined and so can be used in any application,” Ott said. “This effectively adds to reserves of rare earths.”
The importance of finding alternative sources was underscored as prices for neodymium increased ten-fold between 2009 and 2011, before falling back this year.