Rare Earth Minerals
Rare earth minerals are the unsung heroes of our modern technological revolution. These lesser known elements from the earth’s crust are vital for a range of high-tech applications. For instance, they help power electric cars and keep smartphones going.
As the term implies, rare earths are not common. As consumption has increased hugely in the last few decades, we are now facing a rare earth material crisis.
Researchers from the Fraunhofer institute in Germany are taking a stand. Their ‘Lighthouse’ project is working on advanced technologies to make processing rare earths more efficient. The project is also making advances in advanced material design.
Two of these minerals in particular are the focus of much attention. Neodymium and dysprosium are both used widely in consumer electronics, automotive and aerospace industries. As a leader in production, distribution and consumption, China is key to the problem of availability of these elements.
Demand has risen together with prices. The elements are so valuable in part because of their hard-magnetic properties. This allows them to form strong bonds with ferro-magnets such as iron. Without them, our laptops, smartphones and wind turbines wouldn’t exist.
This is why the Fraunhofer institute has earmarked these two elements in particular for attention. The hope is that within a few years, production and processing will become efficient enough to halve the specific primary demand for these heavy earth minerals.
Substitute materials, other methods for producing permanent magnets and the optimisation of electrical drives will be key to the research. Better still, the group is working on ways to design electro-motors that are fully recyclable. This can keep the rare earth minerals in the industry for longer, reducing our hunger for new stocks.
In turn, this can help keep our technological revolution doing what it should do: revolving.
More information and images via: Fraunhofer.