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ANALYSIS – ProspectingJournal.com – It didn’t take long for the panic to set in, last year, when the Chinese government flexed its muscle by threatening the world’s Rare Earth Element (REE) supply. With 95% of REE supplies coming from China, that scare was indeed legitimate. But REEs aren’t the only elements with which China has the potential to choke off. On American Elements’ 2011 Top 5 US Endangered Elements List, three elements (tungsten, indium and neodymium) have over 50% of world supply coming from Chinese mines.
To refresh the memory of those who followed the rare earth surge from last year, and the subsequent piquing of interest in rare earth companies, it began with Japan. As the summer of 2010 was coming to a close, reports of an embargo of shipments to Japan for REEs raised concern for manufacturers who depend upon the elements for production primarily in the tech industry. Within a month, that embargo spread to North America and Europe, and concern over Chinese monopolization rose, along with REE prices, and those of the companies devoted to them.
When the embargo ended, relief came to the sector, while the pace of development outside of China received only a minor increase. The threat of supply shortages still lingers, especially with tungsten, indium and neodymium.
The example of tungsten is not to be ignored, as 85% of global production comes from China, which has already indicated it might end all exports altogether due to domestic demand increases.
With the highest melting point and greatest tensile strength of all elements, tungsten’s importance is unquestionable. Used in all situations that call for high temperature thresholds or hardness and strength, tungsten is imperative to many modern living standards that depend upon it. From a US perspective, the element’s use in the aerospace program, electronics and military (including in bullets and armor) is critical. To the mining industry as a whole, tungsten is a savior with many uses within the assembly of mining equipment itself, including drills in need of durability.
Strangely enough, the United States dismantled domestic production of tungsten ore in 1994 with the last tungsten mine, the Pine Creek Mine in Inoyo, California, going down as a historical footnote en route to Chinese dependence.
Today, tungsten production remains primarily within China, but awareness of a need to develop outside of the PRC is becoming clearer. Options in the western hemisphere are appearing, and may soon be getting the attention they need to aid this drive for domestic independence. Juniors such as North American Tungsten [NTC – TSX.V] and Playfair Mining [PLY – TSX.V] may provide answers that mitigate a possible future supply breakdown.
For North American Tungsten, the title of being the western world’s leader in tungsten production doesn’t come lightly. Through developing its Cantung Mine, it provides tungsten concentrate production within the borders of Canada’s Northwest Territories, which from an international standpoint is a much more secure mining investment environment to work within.
At a much earlier stage, Playfair Mining is not yet a producer, but is heavily leveraged to the price of tungsten, which today sits around $440/MTU (“metric tonne unit”) or over $20/lb. With a goal in mind to partner with an end user of tungsten metal in order to finance its Grey River deposit into production, Playfair is well aware of the potential impact a tungsten shortage would carry.
Due to its high level of use in the manufacturing sector, a significant number of Fortune 500 companies are dependant upon tungsten’s availability. General Electric and its Tungsten Products Division, along with others like Kennametal and ATI Firth Sterling are among those that would most likely benefit from securing a long term tungsten supply, and are among potential targets should Playfair seek a high-worth partner to put its nearest term tungsten property into production.
The company has 4 high-grade deposits with two located in the Yukon, one in the Northwest Territories and another on the southern coast of Newfoundland. Each of the properties was acquired strategically during a period of massively deflated tungsten prices, prior to this latest surge over the $440/MTU mark. This increase represents a 70% rise from the recent low prices that graced Playfair’s entry period. While the commodity’s price has risen, the company’s stock has yet to follow suit.
While the current price of the stock seems to have languished, the team is making strides to be better prepared for when the bigger end-users in need of tungsten come knocking. The board includes experienced individuals who have taken deals into production before, as well as Director James Robertson who took the last big tungsten company outside of China to successful acquisition.
In both combined 43-101 compliant and non-compliant resource categories, Playfair’s tungsten properties contain more than an estimated 5.5 million MTUs of WO3. It’s to be expected, though, that since Playfair is an exploration company, these resources have room for expansion.
As economic uncertainty lingers in all global markets, crucial and endangered elements such as REEs, tungsten, indium and neodymium will be within the watchful eye of western manufacturers in need of these ingredients for their operations. Whether another anticipated panic is inflicted by possible impending embargo actions by China doesn’t change the dependence we have on endangered elements. And like last year’s REE crisis, a price surge on those companies were set to move prior complications is entirely a likely scenario.
By: G. Joel Chury
Molycorp has formed a joint venture with Daido Steel and Mitsubishi to manufacture next generation NdFeB permanent rare earth magnets.
RENO, NV -
Molycorp, Daido Steel, and Mitsubishi have formed a joint venture to manufacture and sell next-generation neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) permanent rare earth magnets, producing greater performance with less reliance on dysprosium.
The joint venture will be financed by the three companies and by a government subsidy sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry.
The effort will utilize Daido’s commercial-scale magnet manufacturing technologies, Mitsubishi’s domestic and international marketing and sales network, and Molycorp’s rare earth oxide, metal and alloy manufacturing capabilities, according to Molycorp.
Target markets for the joint venture are the automotive and home appliance markets. “The joint venture has been provisionally awarded a supply agreement for a next-generation electric vehicle with a major automotive manufacturer,” Molycorp advised.
Rare earth magnets currently fall into two basic types: samarium cobalt and neodymium-iron-boron, both of which can be bonded or sintered. Currently, between 45,000 and 50,000 tons of sintered neodymium magnets are produced each year, mainly in China and Japan.
“The technology for use by the joint venture is a new and novel approach that does not depend on the use of patents held by other magnet companies,” said Molycorp. Instead, it “allows for the manufacture of permanent rare earth magnets that deliver greater performance with less reliance on dysprosium, a relatively scare rare earth.”
“The process also results in higher production yields,” the company added.
The technology is licensed from Intermetallics, a partnership between Mitsubishi, Daido and Masato Sagawa, co-inventor of the NdFeB magnet. Made with neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium (or terbium), NdFeB magnets are considered the world’s most powerful permanent magnet. They are a component of high-performance motors used in the power trains of electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles and wind power generators, as well as in motors in home appliance and industrial applications.
The International Energy Agency estimates electric motors are used in 45% of global power consumption. The NdFeB magnets in motors could help reduce that power consumption by 20% and potentially reduce global CO2 emissions by 1.2 billion tons.
“I am happy and very honored that Molycorp is able to partner with these extraordinary companies, who are global leaders and innovators in so many areas,” said Mark Smith, Molycorp CEO. “Molycorp is also pleased that the joint venture can break ground almost immediately and will be able to produce some of the world’s most powerful rare earth magnets in as little as 14 months.”
The JV plans to build an initial 500 metric-ton-per year magnet manufacturing facility in Nakatsugawa, Japan (Gifu Prefecture) with start-up expected by January 2013. The companies expect to commence work on the new facility next month and eventually expand operations in the U.S. and elsewhere.
“The next generation magnet manufacturing technologies being utilized by the joint venture are a perfect complement to the advanced technologies Molycorp is deploying across our own rare earth manufacturing supply chain,” Smith said, adding the initiative is a major milestone in Molycorp’s mine-to-magnets technology.
The capital contribution ratio of the joint venture will be 30% by Molycorp, 35.5% by Daido, and 34.5% by Mitsubishi.
By: Dorothy Kosich
What do disparate media tablet devices like the Apple iPad, Amazon Kindle Fire, and the Barnes & Noble Nook have in common? They all depend on South Korea’s LG Display as the main supplier of their display panels—a coveted distinction that has made the company the world’s top supplier of media tablet screens, according IHS.
LG Display is the leader by a wide margin of the tablet display market, with a 51 percent share of global unit shipments in the second quarter of 2011. The company is well ahead of South Korean rival Samsung—which also supplies panels for the Apple iPad as well for its own Samsung Galaxy Tab—at a distant second with a 35 percent share. Third-place Chimei Innolux Corp. of Taiwan, another Apple supplier that also provides for the Chinese white-box market, controls a 9 percent share, as shown in the figure attached. The remaining 5 percent of the tablet display market is split among several smaller firms.
LG Display also enjoys a competitive advantage in terms of economy of scale, as it devotes more capacity than other manufacturers to making media tablet displays. Such generous capacity—as well as being Apple’s main supplier—has catapulted LG Display to a favorable position in the market.
Tablets reshape small/medium display business
From the time the iPad was introduced last year by Apple, tablet devices have becomeone of the main driving forces for growth in the market for small- and medium-sized displays, defined as screens smaller than 10 inches in the diagonal dimension.
Tablet shipments are expected to surge an astounding 273 percent this year compared to 2010. And at a time when sales of many consumer electronic items have stalled, media tablet shipments will maintain a robust compound annual growth rate of 45 percent from 2011 to 2015, showcasing the healthy prospects that lie ahead for the space.
Companies hoping to enter the media tablet display space face a number of barriers. For one, displays hoping to merit consideration for inclusion in best-selling tablets must meet demanding specifications for size, pixel format, power consumption and response time.
The standard pixel format for 9.x-inch displays—the size category of the iPad, and the dominant dimension in the industry—is 1,024 by 768 at 132 pixels per inch.
Meanwhile, the standard pixel format for 7.x-inch displays—the size used by the new Kindle Fire and the Galaxy Tab—is at 1,024 by 600 at 170 pixels-per-inch. There is conjecture that Apple will implement its Retina display with resolutions of greater than 300 pixels per inch in the new iPad 3, which is expected to launch in 2012. If so, this will up the resolution trend in the media tablet PC space, challenging other tablet makers to follow suit.
Panel suppliers that cannot meet these exacting display standards or efficiently produce viable displays at such sizes and resolutions will find it very hard to compete in the market, IHS believes.
IPS LCD technology soon may encounter some stiff competition. Japan’s Sharp Corp. has introduced a new oxide material consisting of indium, gallium, and zinc called IGZO that supports high electron mobility—20 to 30 times faster than conventional amorphous silicon (a-Si) technology. Sharp plans to commercialize a TFT LCD using IGZO material by downsizing the transistor and increasing the light transmittance. This will make the display more power efficient and enable higher pixel densities.
IGZO production can be achieved on existing a-Si lines with little modification, making it cost competitive. Sharp plans to manufacture IGZO displays at its eighth-generation a-Si fab in Kameyama, Japan with production expected to start this year.
Another variant of the wide viewing angle technology very similar to IPS LCD is Fringe Field Sequential (FFS) LCD which continues to be used for tablet PC displays. The patent for FFS LCD resides with Taiwanese-based LCD supplier E Ink Corp. (Hydis). However, because of the lack of capacity at E Ink to manufacture larger-sized panels, E Ink licenses this technology to other LCD suppliers, including LG Display.
With the tablet wars ensuing in earnest, the technology that comes out ahead may well determine which display supplier shines brightest in the years to come.
Gallium nitride has long been known to have useful properties when it comes to electronic components. Even so, its application has largely been confined to more exotic areas of the industry, particularly rf transistors.
But GaN is beginning to find application in what could be considered the mainstream, with some of its proponents suggesting its arrival could mark the beginning of the end for the traditional power mosfet.
One of the first companies to bring GaN technology to the embedded power market was International Rectifier (IR), which launched the GaNpowIR platform. But IR is not alone in exploring the application of GaN in the mainstream; a number of companies are now targeting the opportunities, including Efficient Power Conversion (EPC), whose chief executive Alex Lidow held the same role with IR.
Lidow, an unabashed GaN enthusiast, sees the technology offering a ‘huge benefit’ over silicon. But he realises that, to start the ball rolling, the industry needs to make a ‘leap of faith’. “Since we launched EPC, we have won 350 customers,” he said. “But we’ve also seen third parties – Texas Instruments, for example – introducing parts which work with our devices. There is always scepticism of new technology, but we are working with bigger companies as time goes on.”
But why should designers consider using GaN based parts? “It’s fundamentally superior to silicon,” Lidow asserted. “This is because of two very important properties. Firstly, it’s critical electric field is 10 times more than that of silicon; terminals can be closer together and this means smaller devices. Secondly, electron mobility is much better than in silicon because different physics is involved.”
In silicon, said Lidow, electrons hop from crystal to crystal. “In GaN, electrons are confined in a 2d gas defined by quantum mechanics. There is one probability function which allows them to move easily along the surface at high velocity. When you put these two things together, GaN should be 10,000 times more efficient than silicon.”
For the moment, GaN devices aren’t showing that level of improvement; EPC’s first generation parts showed a five to tenfold boost, according to Lidow. Why has the theory not translated into practice? “When power mosfets were introduced in 1978,” Lidow pointed out, “they were 2.5 orders of magnitude away from their theoretical performance. It took time to work out how to squeeze the performance out. It’s the same for GaN, but we’ll get there.”
One of the attractions of GaN, in Lidow’s view, is that power mosfet technology is essentially mature. “Since the turn of the Millennium,” he continued, “there have only been incremental, expensive improvements. Why use power mosfets when you can get at least five times better performance ‘out of the box’ with GaN?”
From his previous experience with power mosfets, Lidow says there are four barriers which stand in the way of the mainstream adoption of GaN technology: will it enable new applications?; is it easy to use?; is it cost effective?; and is it reliable? “As you begin to satisfy these questions,” he said, “you gain more customers.”
• New applications
Lidow believes there are a number of emerging applications which will suit GaN. “In the next few years, we’ll see a range of companies introducing products that will transmit power wirelessly over distances of up to 0.5m with good efficiency. In the next 10 years, domestic power sockets will begin to become obsolete. But these applications require high frequency, high power and high voltage abilities, all of which point to GaN.”
Another application which requires a similar set of abilities is rf envelope tracking. Lidow said: “GaN will improve the efficiency of rf transmission by up to 40% and, as time goes by, the technology will end up in mobile phones.”
And there are also good prospects for using GaN in radiation hard applications. “We’ve demonstrated that GaN is more than 10 times better than silicon in terms of radiation tolerance and that will open applications in satellites and similar designs,” Lidow continued.
• Ease of use
In Lidow’s opinion, GaN is ‘pretty easy to use because it’s high frequency’. “Traditional power designers don’t know what to do with devices that run at MHz rates; there’s a skill set missing. But with the introduction by companies such as TI of driver ics, that problem is largely gone. And the more people use GaN chips, the better it will get.”
• Cost effectiveness
Because GaN is a relatively new technology, it is still relatively expensive. “But where efficiency is involved, it’s valid enough that people can’t afford not to use it,” Lidow claimed. “There are a number of applications where GaN brings a substantial improvement in efficiency, including power over Ethernet and server power supplies.”
Because GaN is still in its early days, reliability remains an issue. “We’re tracking cumulative hours,” Lidow explained, “and working out reliability figures from that. But we’ve generated five reliability reports which point to GaN having a reliability of millions of hours.”
Because GaN is still a developing technology, it’s in the early stages of commercialisation. “We do have cost challenges,” Lidow admitted, “but we are focused on developing the technology. We’re looking at how to grow less expensive epitaxial GaN and working with equipment manufacturers to come up with next generation reactors. Once we get that done, GaN will be cheaper than today’s mosfets.” Nevertheless, EPC’s GaN devices have been designed for manufacture on standard silicon foundry processes.
EPC’s technology is based on epitaxial GaN, grown on a standard silicon substrate. “It’s not complicated,” he continued, “but we’re making it on machines designed to make leds. So we do need next generation machines.”
He said the manufacturing process is simpler than that for silicon; ‘it needs only half the steps’. “A further advantage is that, because GaN is grown on silicon, we can encapsulate it with a layer of glass and that’s a packaged product once it’s separated.”
Lidow sees this as a major advantage. “For power mosfets, the package comprises half of the product cost; and we’ve got rid of the package. With a package, you have to match resistance, thermal issues and so on. That cost and complication is removed and that’s a huge benefit over silicon.”
One early decision which EPC took was to develop enhancement mode, rather than the depletion mode, devices. “There are two benefits,” Lidow claimed. “One is that all power mosfets use enhancement mode, so GaN devices look like them. And, unlike depletion mode, you don’t need to provide a negative voltage in order to hold the power device off.”
EPC is well on the way with its road map. “We’ll be sampling 600V parts early in 2012,” he said, “and this will be followed by our third generation products.”
Lidow is confident of GaN’s potential. Already, market researcher iSuppli predicts the available market will be worth $11billion a year by 2013. “We’re going to see explosive growth in demand,” he concluded, “and applications will be blossoming on GaN.”
By: Graham Pitcher
(Nanowerk News) Thermoelectric materials convert a temperature gradient into a voltage. Most thermoelectrics, however, are too inefficient for widespread practical application. Still, the possibility that these materials could usefully harness heat waste, such as that generated by combustion engines, makes improving their efficiency an important pursuit in materials science. A team of scientists led by Wooyoung Lee at Yonsei University in Korea has now shown that interface roughening may be an effective way to enhance the thermoelectric properties of core/shell nanowires (“Reduction of Lattice Thermal Conductivity in Single Bi-Te Core/Shell Nanowires with Rough Interface”).
In the ideal thermoelectric, the charge conducts easily from a hot point to a cold one, while heat conduction is low. The ratio between these quantities is contained in the thermoelectric ‘figure of merit’.
As both electrons and vibrational waves in the lattice, known as phonons, contribute to a material’s thermal conductivity, Lee and his colleagues attempted to raise a material’s thermoelectric figure of merit by suppressing the conductivity of phonons without impairing electrical conductivity. This can be achieved by adding defects or nanostructuring a material to make it smaller than the phonon mean-free path — the typical distance a phonon travels before it scatters.
Lee and his team combined both of these tricks to reduce the thermal conductivity of a promising thermoelectric material consisting of a bismuth nanowire core coated with a tellurium shell. The team synthesized the wires by cooling just-prepared bismuth nanowires with liquid nitrogen and then coating them with tellurium using a sputtering technique, giving a core/shell structure with a smooth interface. They also prepared the wires without the cooling step, resulting in a rough interface.
After examining a series of the core/shell nanowires of 160–460 nm in diameter in both the smooth and rough versions, the researchers noticed two trends: the narrowest wires had the lowest thermal conductivity, and wires with rough interfaces had lower thermal conductivity than those with smooth interfaces — in some cases by as much as a factor of five.
According to Lee, roughening of the interface between the bismuth and tellurium reduces the thermal conductivity of phonons more significantly than electron thermal conductivity (see image). “The overall effect is to increase the thermoelectric figure of merit,” says Lee.
Source: Tokyo Institute of Technology
Researchers from Purdue and Harvard universities have created a new type of transistor made from a material that could replace silicon and have a 3-D structure instead of conventional flat computer chips.
The approach could enable engineers to build faster, more compact and efficient integrated circuits and lighter laptops that generate less heat than today’s. The transistors contain tiny nanowires made not of silicon, like conventional transistors, but from a material called indium-gallium-arsenide.
The device was created using a so-called “top-down” method, which is akin to industrial processes to precisely etch and position components in transistors. Because the approach is compatible with conventional manufacturing processes, it is promising for adoption by industry, said Peide “Peter” Ye, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue.
A new generation of silicon computer chips, due to debut in 2012, will contain transistors having a vertical structure instead of a conventional flat design. However, because silicon has a limited “electron mobility” — how fast electrons flow – other materials will likely be needed soon to continue advancing transistors with this 3-D approach, Ye said.
Indium-gallium-arsenide is among several promising semiconductors being studied to replace silicon. Such semiconductors are called III-V materials because they combine elements from the third and fifth groups of the periodic table.
“Industry and academia are racing to develop transistors from the III-V materials,” Ye said. “Here, we have made the world’s first 3-D gate-all-around transistor on much higher-mobility material than silicon, the indium-gallium-arsenide.”
Findings will be detailed in a paper to be presented during the International Electron Devices Meeting in Washington, D.C. The work is led by Purdue doctoral student Jiangjiang Gu; Harvard doctoral student Yiqun Liu; Roy Gordon, Harvard’s Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Chemistry; and Ye.
Transistors contain critical components called gates, which enable the devices to switch on and off and to direct the flow of electrical current. In today’s chips, the length of these gates is about 45 nanometers, or billionths of a meter. However, in 2012 industry will introduce silicon-based 3-D transistors having a gate length of 22 nanometers.
“Next year if you buy a computer it will have the 22-nanometer gate length and 3-D silicon transistors,” Ye said.
The 3-D design is critical because the 22-nanometer gate lengths will not work in a flat design.
“Once you shrink gate lengths down to 22 nanometers on silicon you have to do more complicated structure design,” Ye said. “The ideal gate is a necklike, gate-all-around structure so that the gate surrounds the transistor on all sides.”
The nanowires are coated with a “dielectric,” which acts as a gate. Engineers are working to develop transistors that use even smaller gate lengths, 14 nanometers, by 2015.
However, further size reductions beyond 14 nanometers and additional performance improvements are likely not possible using silicon, meaning new designs and materials will be needed to continue progress, Ye said.
“Nanowires made of III-V alloys will get us to the 10 nanometer range,” he said.
The new findings confirmed that the device made using a III-V material has the potential to conduct electrons five times faster than silicon.
Creating smaller transistors also will require finding a new type of insulating layer essential for the devices to switch off. As gate lengths shrink smaller than 14 nanometers, the silicon dioxide insulator used in conventional transistors fails to perform properly and is said to “leak” electrical charge.
One potential solution to this leaking problem is to replace silicon dioxide with materials that have a higher insulating value, or “dielectric constant,” such as hafnium dioxide or aluminum oxide.
In the new work, the researchers applied a dielectric coating made of aluminum oxide using a method called atomic layer deposition. Because atomic layer deposition is commonly used in industry, the new design may represent a practical solution to the coming limits of conventional silicon transistors.
Using atomic layer deposition might enable engineers to design transistors having thinner oxide and metal layers for the gates, possibly consuming far less electricity than silicon devices.
“A thinner dielectric layer means speed goes up and voltage requirements go down,” Ye said.
The work is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Semiconductor Research Corp. and is based at the Birck Nanotechnology Center in Purdue’s Discovery Park. The latest research is similar to, but fundamentally different from, research reported by Ye’s group in 2009. That work involved a design called a finFET, for fin field-effect transistor, which uses a finlike structure instead of the conventional flat design. The new design uses nanowires instead of the fin design.
By: Emil Venere
Dec. 7 (Bloomberg) — Global manufacturers may face a critical shortage of 14 raw materials over the next five years affecting industries including chemicals, aviation and renewable energy, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.
Seven manufacturing industries may be seriously affected by a critical shortage of raw materials “which could disrupt entire supply chains and economies,” PwC said in a report today based on a survey of senior executives from 69 manufacturers.
“Many businesses now recognize that we are living beyond the planet’s means,” Malcolm Preston, PwC’s global sustainability leader, said in the report. “New business models will be fundamental to the ability to respond appropriately to the risks and opportunities posed by the scarcity of minerals and metals.”
Beryllium, used as a lightweight component in military equipment, cobalt, used in industrial manufacturing and lithium, used in wind turbines and hybrid cars, were among minerals identified in the report as facing critical shortages. Tantalum and flurospar will also face a shortfall, it said.
By: Jesse Riseborough