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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Nanoparticle Magnets Conserve Rare Earth Metals

Magnetic nanoparticles are a class of nanoparticle which can be manipulated using magnetic field. Such particles commonly consist of magnetic elements such as iron, nickel and cobalt and their chemical compounds. While nanoparticles are smaller than 1 micrometer in diameter (typically 5 - 500 nanometers), the larger microbeads are 0.5 - 500 micrometer in diameter.

Nanoparticle Magnet

Professor George Hadjipanayis. Source: University of Delaware.

Researchers at the University of Delaware and at General Electric Global Research are independently developing new magnets using nanoparticles to preserve the increasingly small supply of rare earth metals typically used in the strongest magnets made today. These new magnets are also stronger and lighter than traditional magnets and should increase efficiency as well as conserve the dwindling supply of neodymium, dysprosium, and terbium.

Demand for these metals is quickly outstripping their availability. This may be exacerbated by stricter export policies from China where most of the current supply is found. The Department of Energy has funded two independent projects looking to circumvent this scarcity by using nanoparticles to create magnets instead of large quantities of metals. Both projects are taking the same general approach to the problem – creating magnets from nanoparticles combining very small amounts of these rare metals with particles of iron and other more common metals. The small scale structure of these compounds greatly increases the magnetism found in the metal alone, requiring much less metal to achieve the same – or better – results found in normal magnets.

GE is being fairly tight lipped about the specific composites in its magnets and about their manufacturing process. They claim to have successfully produced thin films of magnets using their process and are working on making magnets large enough for practical use. The other research group – headed by the Chairman of the Physics Department George Hadjipanayis at the University of Delaware – is more open about its methods but is also having difficulty scaling their process up sufficiently for practical use.

The team at Delaware is using a combination of iron and cobalt with the standard rare metals in particles of around 20-30 nanometers to create its nanomagnetic material. They are trying to increase the magnetism of these particles and discover ways to assemble them into functional two and three dimensional arrays that act like traditional magnets. Their current research has general applications, but specific projects are focused on creating viable storage media and magnets for various types of medical research and technology.

TFOT has previously reported on other research into magnets and using magnets including superconductivity research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory Magnet Lab and magnetic spaceshields that could protect spaceships from high speed particles and solar flares. TFOT has also reported on other nanoparticle research including a nanoparticle vaccine for Type 1 diabetes, silver nanoparticles for creating small electronics, and a way to encapsulate cancer treatments in nanoparticles.

Read more about the University of Delaware research into magnetic nanoparticles on the group website. Read more about the initial DOE grant funding this research in this University of Delaware

July 26, 2011 – Janice Karin

Gallium Arsenide nanopillars make good solar cells

Indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs) is a semiconductor composed of indium, gallium and arsenic. It is used in high-power and high-frequency electronics because of its superior electron velocity with respect to the more common semiconductors silicon and gallium arsenide. InGaAs bandgap also makes it the detector material of choice in optical fiber communication at 1300 and 1550 nm. Gallium indium arsenide (GaInAs) is an alternative name for InGaAs.
Gallium Arsenide Nanopillars

A new approach to making photovoltaics based on patterned III-V nanopillars has been unveiled by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles and Sandia National Laboratories. The devices made have high surface-to-volume ratios that allow for greater absorption of sunlight and the diameter, pitch and height of the nanopillars can all be separately optimized – so maximizing the optical absorption over a broad range of wavelengths.

“The reported efficiency in our devices is the highest for bottom-up gallium arsenide nanopillar solar cells to date,” team member Giacomo Mariani of UCLA told “The work is also a significant step towards device reproducibility and controllability compared with traditional techniques that lead to random nanowire growth.”

Nanostructured solar cells show much promise thanks to light-trapping effects that dramatically reduce the amount of photons reflected from a device. This ultimately enhances optical absorption. In recent years, researchers have studied structures such as nanodomes, nanocones, nanoparticles and nanowires as possible candidates for improving performance in solar cells. The high surface-to-volume ratio of these materials also increases the all-important photoactive junction area so that more photons are harnessed, something that leads to enhanced power-conversion efficiency.

Nanopillars for next-generation solar cells
Nanopillars€“ densely packed nanoscale arrays of electro-optically active semiconductors€“ could be used to make a next generation of relatively cheap and scalable solar cells, but these materials have been hampered by efficiency issues. Another problem is that growing such structures normally requires a metal catalyst but this technique produces randomly located nanopillars. The metal catalyst can also contaminate the pillars and increase leakage currents in finished devices.

The new method, developed by Diana Huffaker and colleagues, relies on a lithographically defined substrate for selective area epitaxy and the mask used is pre-defined to fix nanopillar diameter and pitch. What is more, it provides a way to make large-area nanopillar arrays.

The researchers grow their nanopillars in a metal-organic chemical vapour deposition reactor that allows both axial (core) and lateral (shell) nanopillar growth to be controlled at will. No metal catalyst is required, which means high crystal quality. Indeed, p-n junctions made from the nanopillars have a low leakage current of around just 236 nA at 1 V and the power conversion efficiency of the material is as high as 2.54%.

Silicon substrates
The team now plans to port the III-V devices to silicon substrates, because silicon is a much more cost-effective platform than the gallium arsenide used in this work. It is also looking at other materials as potential substrates. “For example, the pillars can be embedded in flexible polymers and peeled off from the growth platform to realize a flexible solar cell with the high efficiency of III-V materials,” said Mariani.

“We are just beginning to develop this new class of GaAs device,” he added. “Hetero-epitaxy on silicon will certainly lead to higher efficiency, low-cost solar cells that might even lend themselves to being mass produced.”

The work was published in Nano Letters.

Belle Dum© is a contributing editor at

Critical Minerals, Elements, Metals, Materials

In this article I am going to take a look at three reports covering what the US and Europe consider critical or strategic minerals and materials.

In its first Critical Materials Strategy, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) focused on materials used in four clean energy technologies:

  • wind turbines: permanent magnets
  • electric vehicles:€“ permanent magnets & advanced batteries
  • solar cells: thin film semi conductors
  • energy efficient lighting: phosphors

The DOE says they selected these particular components for two reasons:

  1. Deployment of the clean energy technologies that use them is projected to increase, perhaps significantly, in the short, medium and long term
  2. Each uses significant quantities of rare earth metals or other key materials

In its report the DOE provided data for nine rare earth elements: yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, samarium, europium, terbium and dysprosium as well as indium, gallium, tellurium, cobalt and lithium.

Five of the rare earth metals, dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium€“ as well as indium, were assessed as most critical in the short term. The DOE defines “€œcriticality”€ as a measure that combines importance to the clean energy economy and risk of supply disruption.

Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies

A Report by the APS Panel on Public Affairs and the Materials Research Society coined the term “€œenergy-critical element”€ (ECE) to describe a class of chemical elements that currently appear critical to one or more new, energy related technologies.

“Energy-related systems are typically materials intensive. As new technologies are widely deployed, significant quantities of the elements required to manufacture them will be needed. However, many of these unfamiliar elements are not presently mined, refined, or traded in large quantities, and, as a result, their availability might be constrained by many complex factors. A shortage of these energy-critical elements (ECEs) could significantly inhibit the adoption of otherwise game-changing energy technologies. This, in turn, would limit the competitiveness of U.S. industries and the domestic scientific enterprise and, eventually, diminish the quality of life in the United States.”

According to the APS and MRS report several factors can contribute to limiting the domestic availability of an ECE:

The element may not be abundant in the earth’€™s crust or might not be concentrated by geological processes

An element might only occur in a few economic deposits worldwide, production might be dominated by and, therefore, subject to manipulation by one or more countries – the United States already relies on other countries for more than 90% of most of the ECEs identified in the report

Many ECEs have, up to this point, been produced in relatively small quantities as by-products of primary metals mining and refining. Joint production complicates attempts to ramp up output by a large factor.

Because they are relatively scarce, extraction of ECEs often involves processing large amounts of material, sometimes in ways that do unacceptable environmental damage

The time required for production and utilization to adapt to fluctuations in price and availability of ECEs is long, making planning and investment difficult

This report was limited to elements that have the potential for major impact on energy systems and for which a significantly increased demand might strain supply, causing price increases or unavailability, thereby discouraging the use of some new technologies.

The focus of the report was on energy technologies with the potential for large-scale deployment so the elements they listed are energy critical:

  • Gallium, germanium, indium, selenium, silver, and tellurium employed in advanced photovoltaic solar cells, especially thin film photovoltaics.
  • Dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium, samarium and cobalt€“ used in high-strength permanent magnets for many energy related applications, such as wind turbines and hybrid automobiles.
  • Gadolinium (most REEs made this list) for its unusual paramagnetic qualities and europium and terbium for their role in managing the color of fluorescent lighting. Yttrium, another REE, is an important ingredient in energy-efficient solid-state lighting.
  • Lithium and lanthanum, used in high performance batteries.
  • Helium, required in cryogenics, energy research, advanced nuclear reactor designs, and manufacturing in the energy sector.
  •  Platinum, palladium, and other PGEs, used as catalysts in fuel cells that may find wide applications in transportation. Cerium, a REE, is also used as an auto-emissions catalyst.
  • Rhenium, used in high performance alloys for advanced turbines.

 The third report I looked at, “Critical Raw Materials for the EU” listed 14 raw materials which are deemed critical to the European Union (EU): antimony, beryllium, cobalt, fluorspar, gallium, germanium, graphite, indium, magnesium, niobium, platinum group metals, rare earths, tantalum and tungsten.

€œRaw materials are an essential part of both high tech products and every-day consumer products, such as mobile phones, thin layer photovoltaics, Lithium-ion batteries, fibre optic cable, synthetic fuels, among others. But their availability is increasingly under pressure according to a report published today by an expert group chaired by the European Commission. In this first ever overview on the state of access to raw materials in the EU, the experts label a selection of 14 raw materials as “€œcritical”€ out of 41 minerals and metals analyzed. The growing demand for raw materials is driven by the growth of developing economies and new emerging technologies.

For the critical raw materials, their high supply risk is mainly due to the fact that a high share of the worldwide production mainly comes from a handful of countries, for example:

China: €“ Rare Earths Elements (REE)

Russia, South Africa:€“ Platinum Group Elements (PGE)

Democratic Republic of Congo:€“ Cobalt

All four of the following critical materials appear on each list:

  • Rare Earth Elements (REE)
  • Cobalt
  • Platinum Group Elements (PGE)
  • Lithium

The key issues in regards to critical metals are:

  • Finite resources
  • Chinese market dominance in many sectors
  • Long lead times for mine development
  • Resource nationalism/country risk
  • High project development cost
  • Relentless demand for high tech consumer products
  • Ongoing material use research
  • Low substitutability
  • Environmental crackdowns
  • Low recycling rates
  • Lack of intellectual knowledge and operational expertise in the west

 Certainly the rare earth elements, the platinum group of elements and lithium are going to continue receiving investor attention,€“ they are absolutely vital to the continuance of our modern lifestyle. But there are two metals increasingly on my radar screen, one is on all three above critical metals lists and the other soon will be when/if production increases, and in this authors opinion, that’€™s very possible.


A critical or strategic material is a commodity whose lack of availability during a national emergency would seriously affect the economic, industrial, and defensive capability of a country.

The French Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minires rates high tech metals as critical, or not, based on three criteria:

  • Possibility (or not) of substitution
  • Irreplaceable functionality
  • Potential supply risks

Many countries classify cobalt as a critical or a strategic metal.

 The US is the world’€™s largest consumer of cobalt and the US also considers cobalt a strategic metal. The US has no domestic production, the United States is 100% dependent on imports for its supply of primary cobalt,€“ currently about 15% of U.S. cobalt consumption is from recycled scrap, resulting in a net import reliance of 85%.

Although cobalt is one of the 30 most abundant elements within the earth’s crust it’s low concentration (.002%) means it’s usually produced as a by-product – cobalt is mainly obtained as a by-product of copper and nickel mining activities.


Scandium is a soft, light metal that might have applications in the aerospace industry. With a cost approaching $300 per gram scandium is too expensive for widespread use. Scandium is a byproduct from the extraction of other elements, uranium mining, nickel and cobalt laterite mines and is sold as scandium oxide.

The absence of reliable, secure, stable and long term production has limited commercial applications of scandium in most countries. This is despite a comprehensive body of research and a large number of patents which identify significant benefits for the use of scandium over other elements.

Particularly promising are the properties of :

  • Stabilizing zirconia: Scandia stabilized zirconia has a growing market demand for use as a high efficiency electrolyte in solid oxide fuel cells
  • Scandium-aluminum alloys will be important in the manufacture of fuel cells
  • Strengthening aluminum alloys (0.5% scandium) that could replace entire fleets with much cheaper, lighter and stronger aircraft
  • Alloys of scandium and aluminum are used in some kinds of athletic equipment, such as aluminum baseball bats, bicycle frames and lacrosse sticks
  • Scandium iodide (ScI3) is added to mercury vapor lamps so that they will emit light that closely resembles sunlight


The REEs, PGEs, Lithium and Cobalt are all truly critical to the functioning of our modern society. It’€™s easy to see why they are classified as critical or strategic. Scandium will increasingly find its way into our everyday lives and undoubtedly take its place on the various critical metal lists.

Access to raw materials at competitive prices has become essential to the functioning of all industrialized economies. Cobalt is one of those raw materials, so too will be Scandium.

Are these two critical metals on your radar screen?

If not, maybe they should be.

Richard Mills – Ahead of the Herd | July 14, 2011

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Rare earth metals and elements may affect future global relations China

Jim Sims, from Molycorp, says China is starting to export fewer rare earth elements than previously

 Wars have been fought over oil and water. But are the future global tensions going to be over access to Scandium, Neodymium or Dysprosium?

 Or could conflicts be fought over any other of the 17 rare earth elements, which, week by week, are becoming more and more important in developing the latest high-tech products?

Tucked onto the periodic table of the elements, in a little section once ignored by chemistry teachers, rare earths are now everywhere.

They are in your iPod or tablet computer, are vital for the red colour in your TV screen whatever make you have and allow your headphones to be small enough to fit into your ears.

Jim Sims
As China’s exports are being restricted, we are looking at outright shortages of rare earths, probably this year and next.

 Jim Sims Molycorp representative
They are in hybrid cars – both in the batteries and the fuel – and in new generation wind turbines, missile defence systems, solar panels and even F-16 fighter jets.

At the moment China provides 97% of the world’s rare earth elements, which is making America nervous from both an economic and a security perspective.

Their price has gone up 1000% in just a year, which is making mining them in the US worthwhile once again.

‘Rare earth shortages’

A deep hole in the ground high up in the Mojave Desert is America’s only rare earths mine, and the race is on to dig out the supply to match the demand as only a few places in the world have enough reserves to make mining them practical.

“The world – America, Britain, everyone – relies on what China exports to meet their needs,” says Jim Sims from Molycorp, the company running California’s Mountain Pass mine.

“As China’s exports are being restricted, we are looking at outright shortages of rare earths, probably this year and next,” he adds.

America’s only rare earths mine is located in the Mojave Desert in the US south-west

So the huge diggers and trucks moving vast volumes of rocks around, the daily explosive charges blasting the mountainside apart, are harvesting one of the world’s biggest deposits.

The mine closed down 10 years ago when a flood of cheap Chinese rare earth elements made profits hard to maintain.

Until just a few weeks ago, Molycorp was asking for the US government’s help to cover costs of digging these elements out, separating them off and moulding them into metal alloys.

But the price has gone up so rapidly, rare earths is suddenly looking like a good business.

Last year China’s exports of rare earth elements to Japan were interrupted during a political row over territorial waters, which sent shudders around the world.

“We should be worried when any country completely dominates any raw material supplies,” says Christine Parthemore, from the Center for New American Security in Washington DC.

“I don’t think China is uniquely at fault in this situation, but they are using the political leverage that’s derived from cornering the market they have as any country would.

“I’m sure America would do the same,” he adds.

Increasing demand

The creation of permanent magnets, a key component in so many green technologies, is one of the key uses of rare earths.

They make the new generation of wind turbines more efficient and reliable. But there are such an increasing variety of uses for these elements, down to glass polishing, that there aren’t enough of the raw materials to go around.

The speed of China’s growth means the country is consuming more of its own rare earths, which has led to a drop in the amount available for export.

“It is a security issue strictly in the sense that these minerals are used in critical military components for their properties, which we don’t currently have substitutes for,” says Christine Parthemore.

“If the prices go way up or there are actual supply shortages, it can drive prices up over the long term on military procurement – or it can mean there are parts that we can’t manufacture here in the United States anymore.”

It increases the need for an industry to extract the ore and process the materials.

“The elements are all mixed together in the ore we mine,” Jim Sims says.

“We turn them into a liquid, and let these elements settle out into oxides which are like powders,” he adds.

Inside a warehouse at the mine are dozens of huge white sacks, each weighing a metric tonne and each worth $200,000 (£125,700).

“Those powders then get turned into metals as magnets or used in their oxide forms for a variety of uses in a variety of different substances,” Mr Sims says.

As new uses are found for materials like rare earth elements, there will be more competition, and access to them may change the shape of global politics.

By Alastair Leithead BBC News, Mojave Desert, US July 12, 2011

Is Someone Manipulating The Story About Rare Earths Under The Pacific Ocean?

There were a number of reports over the weekend, about a group of Japanese researchers who say that they have found significant quantities of rare-earth elements (REEs) at multiple sites on the seabed of the Pacific Ocean. In a paper published in Nature Geoscience on July 3, 2011, lead author Yasushiro Kato and his colleagues shared the extensive work that was undertaken, to obtain and to analyze 2,037 samples from 78 different sites across the Pacific Ocean.

Reuters, the BBC, Nikkei and others reported that there is an estimated 100 billion tonnes of rare earths in these deposits. Which is rather interesting, because the scientists themselves made no such claim in their paper.

What they do report, are two regions of the sea bed with so-called REE-rich muds:

  • one in the eastern South Pacific containing 0.1-0.22% total REEs (including 0.02-0.04% heavy REEs), in layers 10 to 40 meters thick;
  • one in the central North Pacific, containing 0.04-0.1% total REEs (including 0.007-0.02% heavy REEs), in layers 30 to greater than 70 meters thick.

The authors compare these muds to the ion-absorption-type clays found in China, which are presently the world’€™s primary source of heavy REEs. They comment that the mud in the eastern South Pacific has heavy REE content that is €œnearly twice as abundant as in the Chinese deposits€œ. Of course, those Chinese deposits are not sitting under €œgreat water depths (mostly 4,000-5,000 meters)€ and below the surface of the sea floor. It is because they are readily accessible and processable, that the Chinese ion-absorption deposits are exploited, despite their very low concentrations of REEs (heavy or otherwise).

Doing a couple of rough calculations, the authors estimate that a 10 meter-thick bed of mud in the eastern South Pacific, with an area of 1 square kilometer, could yield approximately 9,000 tonnes of rare earths. They also estimate that a 70 meter-thick bed of mud in the central North Pacific, with an area of 1 square kilometer, could yield approximately 25,000 tonnes of rare earths. These numbers are not too shabby (if we again forget about the 2.5-3 miles of water sat above them, and their remote location from any significant land masses). As I’€™ve said elsewhere, I can’€™t see these deposits ever being commercially exploited, but the empirical work done by the Japanese researchers which is presented in this paper, is impressive.

What the authors do NOT estimate, is a size of the total mineral resource, and wisely so. While they mention that the thick distributions of mud at numerous sites might mean that the REEs on the sea floor could exceed the world’€™s current land reserves of [110 million tonnes], they acknowledge the considerable challenges and significant variability present on the seafloor, and thus state that “resource estimates for large regions cannot be made until more detailed data are available for areas lacking cores.

Perhaps the lead author later just threw out a wild-ass, ridiculous guess at the size of the deposits, in response to a reporter’€™s question. But if he did not, and if the scientists themselves are not making the claim that there are €œan estimated 100 billion tonnes of rare-earth deposits, as reported by Reuters, Nikkei, and the BBC€“ just who IS making this claim? Who has inserted these comments into this story, and fed them to the mainstream media, and why might they have done that? Can we find clues in the current pricing turmoil, worries about supply from China, and the increasing politicization of the rare-earths story?

I leave those questions as an exercise for the reader to ponder!

Gareth Hatch on July 4, 2011