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Lowman: Reliant on rare earth

Rare Earth Elements critical to 80% of Modern Industry.

Rare Earth Elements critical to 80% of Modern Industry

Science … tells us that nothing in nature, not even the tiniest particle, can disappear without a trace. Nature does not know extinction. All it knows is transformation … and everything science has taught me … strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death. Nothing disappears without a trace.

— Werner von Braun

What do Yttrium, Promethium, Europium and Luterium have in common? Although they may sound like a foreign language, these rare earth elements comprise the backbone of new technologies for the 21st century. Seventeen chemical elements, also called rare earths, are appended to the existing periodic table of elements, and their relatively new discoveries have advanced the electronics industry. Yttrium, when alloyed with other elements, forms part of aircraft engines; Promethium is an essential component of long-lived nuclear batteries; Europium powers images in flat-screen televisions; and Luterium detects radiation in PET scanners (positron emission tomography) used for medical research. Many new technologies — hybrid cars, televisions, cellphones, computer hard drives, camera lenses, and self-cleaning ovens — owe their success to rare earth elements.

The Prius alone contains rare earth elements for its LCD screens, electric motor and generator, headlight glass, catalytic converter, UV windows and mirrors; other cars require similar components to provide competitive features for buyers. The magnets under the hood of a Prius are some of the most powerful on the planet. Different from older technologies, they use rare earth elements to charge the battery and turn the wheels.

Without rare earth elements, your iPod earbuds would still be large, old-fashioned and unwieldy headphones.

As the world’s technologies become increasingly dependent on rare earth metals, their reserves become more valuable. Half the world’s rare earth deposits are in China, which mines almost 100 percent of global supply. Because China recognizes its own increasing needs for new technologies, the country recently reduced rare earth element export quotas by almost 40 percent in 2010.

So what will other countries do to remain competitive in the high-technology market? The answer: Train the emerging generation in STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — to develop new technologies.

In North Carolina, hubs like Research Triangle Park and Raleigh’s new Nature Research Center are ideal incubators for the next generation of scientists and engineers. Researchers are working around the clock to design products that do not require rare earth elements. At Ames Laboratory in Iowa, scientists are trying to create magnets devoid of any rare earth metals. General Electric is applying nanotechnology to wind turbines as part of its clean-energy portfolio. Nanocomposite magnets will reduce the need for two rare earth metals: neodymium and dysprosium, which function to line up the magnetic field in wind turbines or hybrid cars.

Another strategy for minimizing the reliance on China’s rare earth deposits is to locate reserves closer to home. On California’s Mojave Desert, several rare earth mining operations are reopening. Another option involves improved recycling of cellphones and other products that contain rare earth elements.

The most economical solution is to reduce our reliance on rare earth elements altogether. Toyota is scrambling to develop technologies that do not require magnets utilizing rare earth elements in hybrid cars, and the television industry hopes to someday eliminate the need for Europium and Terbium in its screen imagery.

Training the next generation of scientists and engineers to inspire creative solutions is critical; otherwise, iPods, PET scans and plasma televisions may become increasingly limited in their production. After all, where will America be without scandium, a rare earth element alloyed with aluminum in baseball bats?

By: Meg Lowman

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