2011-12-21

Co.Exist

Breaking China's Monopoly By Engineering New Rare Minerals

Rare earth metals are in everything--from rechargeable batteries to the steel in buildings to jet engines. But right now, they come only from China. So major corporations and the government are re-engineering more common minerals to get the same performance.

Most of the world’s supply of rare minerals are controlled by one country: China. When that supply is interrupted and prices spike, as they did when China allegedly slowed deliveries after political sniping with Japan last year, the world’s makers of televisions, cell phones, computer chips, and other essentials in the global economy go begging or pay exorbitant prices. Those prices are then passed on to you, the consumer.

There is no easy answer. Although the U.S. was once self-reliant, with its own supply of rare earth elements, it is now 100% dependent (PDF) on low-cost imports from China, according to the Congressional Research Service. Any new mines in the U.S. will require more than a decade to come online. As demand rises, companies are turning to nano-engineered materials to escape China’s stranglehold. Several alternatives are being considered: reduce waste, recycle existing supplies, find substitutes, or change the system entirely.  

Companies such as General Electric, motivated by supply concerns and R&D dollars from the Department of Energy, say they are pursuing all of those tactics. Johanna Wellington, an advanced technologies researcher at GE, is developing nano-engineered alternatives with abundant--and, if possible, sustainable--mineral elements that can deliver the same breakthrough performance at a lower cost and without the fear of disruption of critical materials.

Wellington says her work engineering materials at the molecular scale often uses principles already common  in nature to trade out super-common compounds for those that only exist in trace quantities in the Earth’s crust.  One of the most common applications are the magnets built into virtually every electric motor.  "We are using nano-engineering to alter the microstructure of permanent magnets so that we can get the same properties but don’t have to use all the materials that are coming out of China and are very expensive," says Wellington. Her DOE-backed research is making magnets for hybrid vehicles and wind turbine generators that contain 80% less rare earth metals than today’s models.

The DOE is even launching what it’s calling the Critical Materials Strategy to ensure materials for permanent magnets, batteries, and photovoltaics are not disrupted. It’s taking similar strategies to diversify its supply chain, substitute, and recycle. Some analysts studying the market say China’s low-cost mining of minerals made extracting them everywhere else too expensive by comparison, and allowed China to solidify its monopoly and export restrictions, favoring domestic industries and driving up prices here.

GE knows that risk. It recognized years ago that it was consuming a large percentage of the world supply of rhenium, a metal used in jet engine metal alloys and catalysts. "It’s not good to use a large percentage of the world supply of anything, whether it’s rare or not," says Wellington. GE launched a successful quest to reduce its dependence on the mineral, buffering the impact of price spikes that hit in 2008.

"It was eye-opening," she says. "It’s part of the reason we have an ongoing sustainable materials program where we pay attention to other materials that might become rare or at risk for price volatility."

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4 Comments

  • RMApps

    Hi Michael... Just came across your recent posting and I would welcome the opportunity of discussing the rare earths and technology sector at yoiur convenince.

    I am a strong believer in the opportunities that nano materials science engineering can create, but as a follower of the good work bring done by GE, Ames Labs, and several Europeann, Japanses and Korean Institues., I also appreciated that the developemnt cycle from lab through pilot through full adoption has varying (could be read as extended) time lines, at least in many cases. I fully support the strateggies and plans of reducing,recovering, substitution and recycling initiatives, as in the mid- to longer-term it clearly adds up.( The nearer term still requires further process and logistics engineering and volumes of material to make it work).

    I'm afraid however that your comment that it will take 10 years for new, non-chinese supply to come on line is incorrect. Resource developments by the likes of Molycorp (US), Lynas (Australia), India Rare Earths (India) and Avalon Rare Metals (Canada) are just a few of the projects at the more advanced or construction stages, While you're correct in thatin general, it can take 10 - 20 years to bring a resounce from prospect to production, these projects alone will be bringing both light and heavy rare earth supply to market this year and over the next three to four years .

    I would invite you to check out these Company's websites, And if your interest in both the demand (new applications  including disruptive nano-solutions) and supply side initiatives, you can check out www.raremetalapps.com or www.raremetalblog.com.

    Looking forward to our touching base... Ian   

  • josie keppler

    Alaska produces tons of the stuff and china's buying it an i gather from this article selling it righ back to the U.S.

  • Claudette Cohen

    Perhaps this would also help us remove armed forces from Afghanistan, which has nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits.