It sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie: Humans are destroying the Earth, making huge scars in its crust, and polluting the air and land as they mine and refine minerals a staple necessary for technological progress. One day, scientists examining an alien meteorite discovered a unique mineral that eliminates the need for all that exploration and pollution. Best of all, the metal can be replicated in the lab using the base materials. The world was saved!
Well, we rotated the story a bit there. No extraterrestrials, for one thing (Unless you know something we don’t). But the rest of that is true. Two teams of scholars – one in Northeastern University in Boston; The other is at Cambridge University in the UK – They recently announced that they were able to synthesize a substance not found naturally on Earth in a laboratory. It is – so far – only found in meteorites.
We spoke to Laura Henderson Lewis, one of the professors on the Northeastern team, and she told us that the material in the meteorites is a mixture of two base metals, nickel and iron, that cooled over millions of years as the meteorites fell through space. This process created a unique compound with a certain set of properties that make it ideal for use in advanced permanent magnets that are an essential component of a wide range of advanced machinery, from electric vehicles to space shuttle turbines.
The complex is called tetratiniteAnd the fact that scientists have found a way to make it in the lab is a huge deal. If synthetic tetranitrate works in industrial applications, it could make green energy technologies much cheaper. It can also upset the market in rare earths, currently dominated by ChinaAnd creating a seismic shift in the industrial balance between China and the West.
Earthly, however, is very rare
As all of our readers will undoubtedly remember from high school science classes, magnets are an essential component of any piece of machinery that runs on electricity: they are the conduit that turns Electrical energy in mechanical work.
Most magnets, such as the magnet in a battery-powered clock on your office wall, for example, are very cheap and easy to produce. On the other hand, the so-called permanent magnets used in advanced machines must be able to withstand enormous pressures and temperatures for long periods of time. And to have those properties, they need a special ingredient: A rare earth.
rare earths Isn’t this rare?. They are items that can be found all over the world. The hard part is extracting them. For one thing, you have to get them off the ground. This is difficult enough. Then you have to separate them: they are usually combined with other elements or materials. Breaking down and purifying these compounds to obtain the raw elements is an expensive and messy business.
The The United States used to be a leader in the rare earth worldBut in the 1980s, China found huge stocks of these items within its borders. Jonathan Hickawi is president Stormcro Capital, an investment firm that tracks the rare earths markets. He has a good story about this discovery.
“Some Chinese companies opened mines in Inner Mongolia that were iron ore mines, and they were producing waste that ended up in their waste piles,” Hykawy says. “The Japanese were buying up loads of this iron, and they said, ‘Can we take samples from the piles of waste?'” And the Chinese said, “Sure, take whatever you want.” The Japanese came back a little later and said, “We’d like to buy waste.” And the Chinese said, “Well, why don’t we sell it to you? I mean, it’s a waste. What are we going to do with it?” Turns out it was rich in rare earth elements.”
The Chinese spread very quickly, and they began to extract these rare elements on their own. They could do this at a much lower cost than anyone else, because the labor costs were much lower, and they were willing to incur the environmental costs, which were not insignificant. Soon, Hykawy says, US production stopped, and China effectively controlled the market. Today, China controls more than 71% of the world’s extraction and 87% of the world’s processing capacity for rare earths.
Two of these rare earths, neodymium and praseodymium, are Main ingredients in permanent magnet manufacturing, which means that China now dominates the permanent magnet market as well More than 80 percent One of these high end machines. A decade ago, this wasn’t a problem. China was a willing and cooperative trading partner that did not appear to be a threat to the United States in 2004. Outsourcing of production From magnets used in guidance systems for US cruise missiles and precision bombs of a Chinese company.
“We had an American production,” says Laura Lewis. “Magnaquench, a General Motors subsidiary. Was in Anderson, Indiana, and moved wholesale to China. It was a short-term view of the economy; profit up front, but then we lost our future capabilities.”
Today, relations with China are more fraught. The need for both rare earth elements and permanent magnets is growing, as we transition to a clean energy economy.
The United States has awakened to the realization that it is at a strategic disadvantage to China in this vital area of its economy and national security. Restarted a rare earth mine in CaliforniaShe is looking for potential new mining sites in Arizona, Nevada, and Wyoming. But these mines will take more than a decade to get up and running.
This is why the discovery of synthetic tetratinites is so exciting, says Jonathan Hickawi. The compound is so hard that manufacturers can make permanent magnets out of it for all of the most demanding machining parts. If that happens, the United States could fill a significant portion of the magnet market itself, reducing its need for some rare earth elements. It will transform America’s relationship with China. The United States is no longer beholden to a competitor for these key materials or relies on them for certain parts essential to biotechnology production.
However, there is a potential downside. rare earths Don’t just use in the production of permanent magnets. They are used in optical fibers, in radiation scanners, in televisions, in personal electronics. If a significant portion of the rare earths market disappears due to tetratenite, Hicawi says, production of all of these other important rare earth elements could be disrupted. Their production can become much more expensive, which can increase the cost of a range of consumer and industrial goods.
Laura Lewis says it will be a long time before tetra-nitrogen is in a position to disrupt any existing markets. She says there is still a lot of testing to be done to see if lab tetratinite is as powerful and useful as the outer space substance. And even if it turns out to be good, it will take five to eight years to “pedal to metal” before anyone can make permanent magnets out of it.
Meanwhile, China’s competitors are working hard to get their own rare earth. United State investing in mines in australia; There is an exploration underway in MalaysiaThe Japanese are looking for ways to extract items from them Mud mined from the bottom of the sea. Jonathan Hickaway says that if countries are willing to invest in rare earth extraction, and bear the environmental impacts, there is no reason they can’t level the playing field with China.
“If we are willing to pay enough to produce these things, you can overcome these issues and you can produce these things in an environmentally responsible way,” he says. “This is no worse than mining and aluminum production, for example.”
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