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Experts weigh in on current challenges
and future opportunities for rare earths

When it comes to rare earths, the problem seems clear: the United States faces a shortage of materials that are important for many technologies. But a variety of perspectives and approaches — from both scientific institutions and industry — will likely be needed to address the challenges that lie ahead.

So, Inquiry invited senior scientists at the Ames Laboratory and the chief executive officer of Molycorp Minerals, an industry leader in rare earths, to weigh in on the current situation and their vision for the future.

WHY ARE RARE EARTHS IMPORTANT?
Alan Russell, Ames Laboratory associate scientist: The general public and even U.S. policy makers probably don’t think of rare-earth materials as vital strategic materials. But, if they all suddenly vanished overnight, the loss would be devastating. Rare-earth elements are pervasive in modern engineering systems. They are essential to efficient operation of hybrid cars, computer hard disk drives, magnetic resonance imaging systems for medical diagnosis, audio and communications equipment, and in electric motors for manufacturing and transportation.

Bill McCallum, Ames Laboratory senior scientist: Rare earths really are in a lot of the technologies we enjoy today – things as everyday as cell phones and laptop computers and LED and compact fluorescent lights. And rare earths are important if we want to make progress in new technologies.

Mark Smith, chief executive officer of Molycorp Minerals: Yes, the list of rare-earth dependent technologies is long, more than most people understand. That is particularly true in green technologies. For example, the next generation of 3 megawatt wind turbines, which use permanent magnet generators, require about one ton of neodymium-iron-boron magnets. Hybrid electric, plugin hybrid electric and all-electric vehicles require rare earths to work — and significant amounts at that. In general, hybrid vehicles use approximately 10-15 kilograms of rare earths each. Another area that is getting increased attention in Washington, D.C., is the number of critical defense and homeland security technologies that don’t work without rare earths. A recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office highlighted three key findings that got a lot of attention in policymaking circles: a “wide variety of defense systems and components … are dependent on rare-earth materials for functionality”; rare earths in military technologies “would be difficult to replace without losing performance”; and several rare earths have “already caused some kind of weapon system production delay.” Those findings certainly underscore the critical importance of rare earths for the future of our nation.

Karl Gschneidner Jr., Ames Laboratory senior scientist: Rare-earth magnets are in use in every computer system in the world. And every weapons system in the United States depends on computers. What happens if all our weapons systems are dependent upon a rare-earth supply from China? What will the future look like then? From a scientific standpoint, rare earths are important because they are so unique. It’s not as easy as just finding substitute materials for rare earths’ uses. Rare earths’ properties are hard to replicate or replace. For instance, europium was discovered many years ago, and people have been looking to replace it for 50 years and haven’t been able to. 

 

WHAT’S THE CURRENT STATUS OF RARE-EARTH RESEARCH AND PRODUCTION IN THE UNITED STATES?
Russell: Rare-earth research is ongoing, particularly here at Ames Laboratory, but there is a problem: no major funding source specifically focuses on research on these materials. This seems odd in light of the major push to develop alternative energy generation and utilization technologies. Rare-earth elements are vital to many of these technologies.

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 Iver Anderson, Ames Laboratory senior
metallurgist and Iowa State University adjuct professor of Materials Science and
Engineering

 Image  Karl Gschneidner Jr., Ames Laboratory
senior materials scientist and Iowa State University Anson Marston  Distinguished Professor, director of Ames Lab’s Rare-earth Information Center from 1966 to 1996
 Image  Bill McCallum, Ames Laboratory senior scientist and Iowa Sate University adjunct professor of materials science and engineering, director of Ames Lab’s Rare-earth Information Center from 1996 to 2002
 Image  Alan Russell, Ames Laboratory senior materials scientist and Iowa State University professor of materials science and engineering
 Image  Mark Smith, chief executive officer of Molycorp Minerals, a U.S. rare-earth producer and technology company

Smith: There is no question that we’ve allowed support in the United States for rare-earth research and production to deteriorate. And it is a situation that needs to be reversed, and soon.
When you consider how important and ubiquitous rare earths are in so many advanced technologies — from renewable power generation to hybrid and electric vehicles to advanced communications to military systems — the lack of rare-earth research and development is both surprising and disturbing. I have yet to find a single university in the U.S. that offers students an undergraduate or graduate level course specific to rare-earth development or application research — not a single one. In sharp contrast, China has thousands and thousands of scientists and researchers who focus on rare-earth research and development and applications deployment.
When Molycorp began looking five years ago for scientists and researchers with experience and background in rare earths, we could find virtually none. We had to hire bright, young scientists with no rare-earth experience and train them almost from scratch.
Essentially, we unleashed these bright young minds, let them experiment and investigate and think outside of the box for several years. Now, that investment turned out to be very much worthwhile, as our research and development team has come up with truly breakthrough technologies and processes that we are now implementing at our Mountain Pass Rare Earth Facility. But it was a sobering experience to learn how thin America’s rare-earth research “bench” has become. [Editor’s note: Read about Ames Laboratory’s efforts to educate a new generation of rare-earth experts on page 19.]

Russell: I think the lack of emphasis on rare-earth research is partially the fault of scientists for failing to explain to policy makers the importance of the rare-earth elements in many technologies. For example, when one looks at a wind generator, the importance of the structural materials used for towers and blades is immediately obvious. Much less obvious is the fact that each generator contains neodymium, and without the neodymium, the generator would be much heavier and less efficient. Similarly, discussions on hybrid cars tend to focus on the cars’ fuel mileage, price, and performance while overlooking the fact that each Toyota Prius motor uses 1 kilogram of neodymium, and each battery requires 10 to 15 kilograms of lanthanum. And these numbers are expected to nearly double as newer, more fuel efficient versions of the car are introduced.

Smith: The good news is that I’m very optimistic that this trend of overlooking rare earths is about to reverse itself. Policy makers at the highest levels of our government are awakening to the critical role that rare earths play in our rapidly evolving “new energy economy” and to the fact that we have allowed ourselves to become much too dependent upon non-U.S. sources of rare-earth materials. Elected officials of both political parties are beginning to push policy initiatives across many areas of rare earths, and I think that this trend will result in increased support for rare-earth research and development in this country.

Gschneidner: I agree. Rare-earth research is picking up. Ames Laboratory probably does as much research on rare-earth materials as the rest of the United States put together. But rare earths are getting more attention lately, and our experience at Ames Lab is very beneficial to the discussion.

McCallum: For example, Ames Lab has scientists who are looking at the basic physics of rare-earth materials, and we have research in processing. Iver Anderson, Ames Laboratory senior scientist: And I’d say that in the work of Larry Jones and the Ames Lab’s Materials Preparation Center, we are working most on processing improvements and developing incrementally better ways to refine rare-earth oxides to produce the best metal. We’re perfecting the steps in the process, but that still leaves the problem of whether there are some totally new routes to getting more efficiently to the end product. We have the potential to make that kind of breakthrough in the collapse of the processing steps, but that will need a dedicated study, not just the filling of a researcher’s order. I think that the work of Rick Schmidt and Karl Gschneidner on new routes to rare-earth magnet alloys is a step in the right direction.

 

WHAT WOULD THE IDEAL FUTURE FOR RARE EARTHS IN THE UNITED STATES LOOK LIKE?
Gschneidner: Much more rare-earth research. I think one of the things we need in this country is a national rare-earth research center devoted to examining some of the critical scientific problems. This type of research would be applied, rather than basic. And it should include academic courses on rare-earth materials and separation processes. All types of rareearth research might not be able to take place in one location. Instead, different laboratories and universities should focus on their strengths. Russell: Yes, ideally the United States would establish a national center for both fundamental and applied research in the chemical, metallurgical, magnetic, optical and electronic properties of rare-earth elements. And the United States should restore its production capabilities for rare-earth elements.

Smith: In my view, the ideal future for rare earths in the U.S. involves three elements: alternative, non-Chinese sources of supply; a complete mine-to-magnets manufacturing supply chain on U.S. soil; and restoring the U.S. to a position of global leadership in rare-earth research, development and application innovation. With regard to sources of supply, no entity should allow itself to become dependent on any single source. That is especially true of U.S. government agencies, such as the Defense Department. My hope is that we will eventually see several reliable sources of rare earths in North America. Molycorp may be the only U.S. producer of rare earths able to significantly ramp up production over the next several years. Our production will place the United States in a position of virtual rare-earth independence, given that our output will meet or exceed U.S. demand. But additional alternative sources of supply are going to be needed, particularly as the green technology revolution continues to grow. We also need to deploy in this nation a complete mine-tomagnets manufacturing supply chain. Fortunately, Molycorp is on track to deliver this to the U.S. as well, and in only two years. The key to success in this regard is to keep processing and manufacturing costs low — at a level that can compete successfully against Chinese producers — and to partner or joint venture with those companies that have access to intellectual property related to rare-earth alloying and neodymium-iron-boron magnet manufacturing. Without such joint venture partnerships, no U.S. company will be able to make rare-earth alloys or magnets until at least 2014. Molycorp is positioned to succeed on both of these counts.

Anderson: I agree with Mark. We need to have a set of companies that are able to vertically integrate their operations from mining to final products, and this may take the form of several companies banding together into a partnership. It could be one company grabbing a hold of all the process steps. But I think it’s going to be through vertical integration that we can get at least to the highest value-added stage that it becomes profitable. That’s really what’s going to be important. And we could follow that one step further to go from the magnets now and later, an exclusive deal with a motor manufacturer or an engine manufacturer. Those would be great. Can we vertically integrate to that step? It’s certainly what the Chinese are trying to do. But we have all the technology here in the United States. The companies have to organize themselves. I think that makes the most sense to me.

McCallum: If we want to have the good jobs here manufacturing products that contain rare earths, we have to have our own supplies. As I understand it, a major problem at the current time is the cost of setting up a rare-earth operation where you are actually producing metal. If we scientists can do research and increase the efficiency of things like separations, then the capital requirements go down and we have a better chance of getting where we need to be.

 

WHAT WILL IT TA KE TO ACHIE VE THE IDEAL FUTURE FOR RARE EARTHS IN THE UNITED STATES?
Smith: I would say four things are necessary to achieve an ideal future for rare earths in our nation. Three of those are areas on which Molycorp is focusing intensely. One, we need to establish alternative, non-Chinese sources of rare-earth supplies. Two, we need to establish a complete, domestic mining-to-magnets manufacturing supply chain that utilizes new technologies that can keep U.S. rare-earth materials costs competitive with any producer in the world. Three, we need to explore economic paths to rare-earth recycling. Four, we need to significantly ramp up support for basic and applied rare-earth research and development, including reestablishing rare-earth-specific curricula in our colleges and universities. Molycorp is on track to deliver to the nation solutions on items one through three. Item four will require action by the U.S. Congress and the presidential administration and coordinated initiatives by the private sector, academia and research institutes. I am optimistic that the United States will succeed in achieving all four of these objectives.

Gschneidner: Mark’s right. Rare-earth research and development at national laboratories and universities needs support. Money. Simple as that. And it’s an investment that’s vital to the United States. Only 5 percent of rare earths used today come from elsewhere than China. That’s a real monopoly.

Russell: It has sometimes been said that Americans aren’t particularly good at anticipating problems, but they are remarkably effective at responding to problems (think Pearl Harbor). If that is true, perhaps the impending shortages and price spikes in the global rare-earth marketplace will catalyze establishment of a national rare-earth research center. The United States already has many national targeted research centers. Perhaps the time will soon come to establish a national center for rareearth research in the United States. It could serve to coordinate research on rare-earth production, recycling, fundamental science and technology development. China has had such a center for decades.

Anderson: If we organize a center here at Ames Laboratory or elsewhere that’s a start. But what scientists would really like to have is some competition, somebody who has a slightly different viewpoint and a slightly different pathway. And you’re trading results.

If we are going to retain a lot of our rare-earth knowledge here in the United States, we are better off with some peer groups that are capable of reviewing the work we’re doing and maybe to have their own work going as well. I’d like to see at least a second center and maybe even a third rare-earth research center. So, now we’re talking about some real money here, but that’s a strategic investment by the country. I think science benefits from having competitive programs with different themes, and the study of rare earths is big enough and important enough that there’s room for a lot of research.

~ by Breehan Gerleman Lucchesi