From the Director

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The Ames Laboratory has been a world leader in rare-earth science for most of its history, and our Materials Preparation Center has established itself as the preferred source of certified, research-grade, high-purity rareearth samples to researchers around the world. The Ames Laboratory has maintained a capability in rare-earth science because of the unique properties of the rare earths, and it has delivered a steady stream of discoveries ranging from superconducting compounds, to alloys with special magnetic properties, and all the way to unique mechanical properties in intermetallic alloys.

Rare earths are critical commodities in the effort to create
a sustainable energy future, and the Ames Laboratory is a
national reource in rare-earth science and technology.
 

Interest in any particular material is always cyclic, and it usually depends upon scientific discoveries or economic issues. The present interest in rare earths comes from a convergence of decades of scientific advances, emerging interest in green technologies and the economics of supply and demand.

The world’s most powerful permanent magnets are now made from neodymium, iron and boron (sometimes with dysprosium, too), and these are used in wind turbines and the motors for hybrid and all-electric cars, along with smaller motors and transducers in a huge range of applications, in our cell phones and other personal electronics. Efficient lighting, whether it comes from compact fluorescent lamps or light emitting diodes, depends on rare earths. LCD displays, light sensors, catalytic converters, advanced batteries and ultraviolet filtering glass all contain rare earths, too. A huge range of technologies that relate to renewable energy production or energy efficiency depends on the special properties of materials that contain rare-earth elements.

If there is a green revolution going on out there, then one of its indicators is the demand for rare-earth materials. Big magnets in hybrid cars and huge ones in wind turbines are generating demands for tonnage amounts of neodymium that threaten to outstrip the world’s available supply. The good news is that the world is building greater renewable power generating capacity and more hybrid vehicles. The bad news is that this may all be limited by the availability of rare earths. The rising price of neodymium tells you a lot about the world’s progress toward sustainability, even though it is not the only commodity that is impacted by the shift toward green technologies.

Despite the name, rare earths are not actually all that rare in the crust of the earth, but they are hard to extract in an economic and environmentally appropriate manner. Richer ores make the task easier, and while demand and prices were low, the mining of rare earths became largely a monopoly of organizations that had access to higher concentrations and less severe environmental regulations. Almost all of the world’s supply of rare earths now comes from China, but China does not have the capacity to meet the demand that is projected for the coming years. Prices are rising, and people are asking what can be done to allow the sustainability trend to proceed.

In some ways, we’re the victim of our own success. The Ames Laboratory arguably helped to create this crisis by inventing some of the rare earth-based materials that are now in high demand, and also through assisting other labs in their work by providing them with rare earths to sustain their research. Now we are working on a range of projects that aim to increase the supply of rare earths, through improved extractive technologies and recycling, and to reduce the demand, by developing new magnetic materials that use less rare earths, or even none at all. Read on to find out how.

 

Alex King, Director