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Rare earths for life: an 85th birthday visit with Mr. Rare Earth

While scientists often talk about their life’s work, few lives have been fuller than that of Ames Laboratory’s Karl A. Gschneidner, Jr. who’s being honored for over six decades of research in the rare-earth metals with a colloquium on his 85th birthday, Monday, Nov. 16.

Gschneidner arrived in this neighborhood of the periodic table--the lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium-- early on, with a doctoral dissertation on rare-earth carbon systems in 1957 from Iowa State University. And the scope of his research expanded as rare-earth metals have found their way into everything from lasers and lighting to magnets and consumer electronics.

Gschneidner has published more than 500 articles in scientific journals plus more than 170 chapters in books and conference proceedings, and he holds 15 patents. The majority of his work has examined the physical metallurgy of rare earths, as well as their magnetic, thermal and electrical behaviors. Additionally, his research with fellow Ames Laboratory scientist Vitalij K. Pecharsky led to the discovery of the giant magnetocaloric effect; and the construction, testing and demonstration of a proof-of-principal magnetic cooling machine in partnership with the Astronautics Corporation of America, both in 1997. These contributions are leading the way to a more environmentally-friendly alternative to the traditional gas-compression refrigeration.

Sixty-two years later, Gschneidner’s decades of expertise has earned him the nickname, “Mr. Rare Earth.” It’s an appropriate one for a scientist who founded the Rare-earth Information Center (1966-2002), heads up scientific research at the Critical Materials Institute, is an Iowa State University Anson Marston Distinguished Professor of Engineering, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

In honor of his 85th birthday and six decades of scientific research, we caught up with Mr. Rare Earth to ask him a few questions.

How did the Mr. Rare Earth nickname come about?

It started popping up about 20 years ago, and it stuck. Some people wanted to call me “the father of rare earths,” but I really felt that title belonged to the first director of Ames Laboratory, Frank Spedding. He was the one who developed the methods for purifying rare earth metals, the person who really laid the groundwork for everyone who came after. So Mr. Rare Earth it was.

How did Mr. Rare Earth begin? How did you come to be at Iowa State and Ames Laboratory?

I came to Iowa State first as a graduate student. I majored in chemistry at the University of Detroit, and my academic advisor was from Iowa State and recommended it for graduate school. He had some connections at Ames Laboratory, a Dr. Fulmer who was the assistant director to Spedding. Dr. Spedding talked to me about the work available, either in separations or in metals. Well, I’d done some undergraduate work in chromatography, which is basically separations, and I thought it was pretty boring. But I had always had an interest in metals, even in high school, so I asked Spedding to put me to work in metals. I’ve been there ever since.

You left for a while, but then returned to Iowa State University and the Ames Laboratory?

After I received my Ph.D., I took a job at Los Alamos National Laboratory, first as a staff scientist in the Chemical and Metallurgy Division and then as a section leader. But when Ames Laboratory offered me a research position, I leaped at the chance, and came back to Ames Laboratory and to Iowa State. We’re an Iowa State family. My wife, Melba, is a dietician and earned her master’s degree in food and nutrition here; and all four of our children-- Tom, Dave, Ed, and Kathy-- graduated from here as well.

After six decades studying them, are you ever bored with rare earths? Do you have a favorite?

My favorites vary over time; they’re like an ever-changing cast of characters. Neodymium, Cerium and Praseodymium are the most interesting in magnet research, Erbium for its use in optics and in research. But all the rare-earth metals are pretty unique and have some unusual properties, and we keep finding out more about them. We don’t yet fully understand them. Even after 62 years, I’m still discovering things about the rare earths that surprise and intrigue me and my fellow researchers.

When you began studying the rare-earths six decades ago, did you foresee the role they would play in so many of our current technologies?

Not at all. And I certainly never imagined that I’d be testifying to Congress like I did in 2010 and 2011, and advocating for the efficient production and use of rare-earths. Now Ames Laboratory heads up an entire Critical Materials Institute dedicated to these goals. The significance of rare earths in technology and manufacturing has grown over time, and it’s been gratifying to see the science grow and expand along with those new technologies.

What do you foresee in the future of rare-earth science?

The only thing I can really predict about the future, just like anyone else, is that it is coming. But I believe we have much left to learn about the rare-earth metals, and that the prospect is exciting. I believe we’ve only just begun to tap their true potential.