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Rare Earths Make a "Class" Comeback




Not since Mr. Rare Earth himself, Karl Gschneidner, gave up teaching a class on rare-earth materials at Iowa State University back in 1994 in order to devote his full time to research, have college students been able to get any serious, comprehensive education on rare earths.  But the hiatus is now over.  Rare-earths education is back in vogue.

A new course, MSE 457/557X, the Chemical and Physical Metallurgy of Rare Earths, began being offered at Iowa State during the 2012 spring semester.  The three-credit, experimental class is taught twice weekly by Vitalij Pecharsky, Ames Laboratory senior metallurgist and ISU Distinguished Professor in materials science and engineering. The course covers the basics of rare earths, such as where rare earths are found in nature, how they’re extracted from the earth’s crust, how they’re made into metals and how the metals can be made into products.

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Ames Lab senior metallurgist Vitalij Pecharsky lectures on rare-earth magnetism and microstructure to both in-house and distance-education students at ISU.

Pecharsky, who is actively involved in rare-earth research at the Ames Laboratory, also lectures on the physical and chemical properties of rare earths and their compounds.  

“This is the only course of this scope and magnitude offered in this country and offered on a regular basis to both undergraduate and graduate students as well as distance-education students,” says Pecharsky.

The timing of the class coincides directly with renewed worldwide interest in rare-earth materials and the restart of the mining and processing industry in this country, Canada and Europe, and, of course, the ability of Ames Laboratory scientists to teach the course.

ImageMegan Meyer, a graduate student in materials science and engineering (MSE) at ISU, signed up for the course because “it was something I knew little about, and it was an opportunity to learn from a leading expert.”  Meyer adds, “Rare earths are part of our everyday lives in every aspect, and with the increase in demand of rare earths and the economics that affect importing rare earths, it will be an important industry in the United States.”

ImageMeyer’s reasons for participating in the class also ring true for other participants, such as Weijie Wang, a graduate student in MSE at ISU.  But whereas Meyer discovered the course on her own, Wang’s graduate advisor, Mufit Akinc, Ames Laboratory research associate and ISU MSE professor, suggested he take the course.  “He just thought the course would be beneficial to my research, and I wanted to have more knowledge about the rare-earth industry, which may help me in finding a job in the near future,” Wang says.

Altogether, there are 19 students in this semester’s class, a very strong showing for an experimental class, which is indicative of its timeliness, says Pecharsky.  Adding to its relevance is its makeup:  five of the class participants work in industry and are taking the course via distance ed.  Pecharsky attributes this to the class’ emphasis on the properties of rare-earth compounds that have “industrial importance” and are also important for basic science.

ImageTerry Gatchell is one of the class’ distance ed students.  She’s also a researcher and industry consultant for the Anchor House, a U.S. company that concentrates primarily on “understanding the economics and viability of rare-earth resources worldwide.”  She’s found the class’ topics to be directly related to her work.  “We deal strictly with rare earths, so this class has been fantastic,” she says.

ImageDistance ed student Mallory Dalsin is a graduate student at the University of British Columbia completing her Master’s in a rare-earth related field, but she also works for Mackevoy Geosciences Ltd., a Canadian company that “specializes in working on deposits with unique mineralogy, including rare earths.”  She says her company has worked on rare-earth deposits in British Columbia, the Yukon and Ontario in Canada.  “A course with this kind of detail on rare earths is not offered where I live, and it makes learning the information more accessible,” Dalsin says,  “The class is giving me further knowledge of how rare earths behave and the extractive process, which assists determining the economic potential of an exploration project.  I feel the more you know about the commodity you’re looking for, the more beneficial it will be to the overall evaluation of the project.”

If the class remains popular, Pecharsky believes it will likely be expanded to being offered every spring semester.  And that would seem the likely scenario if comments made by students like Terry Gatchell have any bearing.  Her tongue-in-cheek advice to those, whether in academia or industry, who are taking or may take the class in the future:  “It’s [rare earths] an exciting place to be right now, and young, bright scientists who are willing to work on problems in mining, metallurgy and materials science will be worth their weight in dysprosium.”

~ by Steve Karsjen


Rare Earth Industry and Technology Association

ImageREITA, a consortium of global industry, government and academic partners, of which Iowa State is a member, is working to provide other course offerings on rare earths.  REITA’s goal is to facilitate the development and commercialization of rare-earth technologies critical to the economic and national security interests of developed nations.  According to Keith Delaney, REITA executive director, “Creating the intellectual infrastructure for rare-earths is vital for the commercial sustainability of the industry.”  
REITA supported another of its members, the Colorado School of Mines, when it provided a three-day short course on rare-earth resource recovery in the summer of 2011.  The short course was sold out with over 100 participants and will be repeated in summer 2012.   CSM’s course focuses on mining, beneficiation, purification, reduction and making metals.  CSM is also looking to expand its rare-earth course offerings via distance education in the near future.  
The University of Nevada at Reno will be offering a course in rare-earth spectroscopy via distance learning in fall 2012.  Details will be provided on the REITA website at: