It sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie: humans are destroying the Earth, carving huge scars into its crust, and polluting the air and soil by extracting and refining a key element essential to technological progress. One day, scientists examining an alien meteorite discover a unique metal that eliminates the need for all that digging and pollution. Even better, metal can be replicated, in the lab, using base materials. The world is saved!
OK, we amped up the story a bit there. No aliens, for one thing (unless you know something we don’t). But the rest is true. Two teams of scientists – one at Northeastern University in Boston; the other at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom – recently announced that it had succeeded in manufacturing, in the laboratory, a material that does not exist naturally on Earth. So far it has only been found in meteorites.
We spoke to Laura Henderson Lewis, one of the North East team professors, and she told us that the material found in meteorites is a combination of two base metals, nickel and iron, which were cooled for millions of years as meteors tumbled through space. . This process has created a unique compound with a particular set of characteristics that make it ideal for use in high-end permanent magnets that are an essential component of a wide range of advanced machinery, from electric vehicles to space shuttle turbines.
The compound is called tetrataenite, and the fact that scientists have found a way to make it in the lab is a huge deal. If synthetic tetrataenite works in industrial applications, it could make green energy technologies much cheaper. It could also disrupt the rare earth market, which is currently dominated by China, and create a seismic shift in the industrial balance between China and the West.
Terrestrial, but oh, so rare
As all our readers will no doubt remember from their high school science lessons, magnets are an essential component of any electrically powered machine: they are the conduit that transforms electrical energy into mechanical action.
Most magnets, like the battery-powered clock magnet on your office wall, for example, are quite cheap and easy to produce. The so-called permanent magnets that are used in advanced machines, on the other hand, must be able to withstand enormous pressures and temperatures for long periods of time. And to acquire these properties, they need a special ingredient: a rare earth.
Rare earths are not that rare. These are elements that can be found all over the world. The hard part is extracting them. For one, you have to dig them out of the ground. It’s quite hard. Then you have to separate them: they are usually combined with other elements or materials. Breaking down these compounds and refining them into the raw elements is a costly and messy business.
The Chinese Syndrome
The United States was once a leader in the world of rare earths, but in the 1980s China discovered a huge deposit of these elements within its borders. Jonathan Hykawy is chairman of Stormcrow Capital, an investment firm that tracks rare earth markets. He has a good story about this discovery.
“A couple of Chinese companies opened mines in Inner Mongolia and they were iron ore mines, and they produced waste that ended up in their tailings heaps,” Hykawy said. “The Japanese were buying large quantities of this iron, and they said, ‘Can we sample the waste piles?’ And the Chinese said, ‘Sure, take whatever you want.’ The Japanese came back a little later and said, “We’d like to buy the 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 earths.”
The Chinese understood quite quickly and began to extract these rare elements themselves. They could do it much cheaper than anyone else because their labor costs were much lower and they were willing to bear the environmental costs, which were not negligible. Very soon, Hykawy says, American production ceased and China effectively took over the market. Today, China controls more than 71% of global mining and 87% of global rare earth processing capacity.
Two of these rare earths, neodymium and praseodymium, are key components in the manufacture of permanent magnets, which means that China now also dominates the permanent magnet market, manufacturing more than 80% of these high-end instruments. . Ten years ago, that didn’t seem like a problem. China was a willing and cooperative trading partner, seemingly so unthreatening that in 2004 the United States actually outsourced the production of magnets used in guidance systems for US cruise missiles and precision bombs. to a Chinese company.
“We had an American production”, explains Laura Lewis. “Magnaquench, a subsidiary of General Motors. It was in Anderson, Indiana, and it basically went to China. It was a short-term view of the economy; profit at the start, but we then lost our abilities along the way.”
Today, relations with China are more tense. And the need for rare earths and permanent magnets is growing, as we transition to a clean energy economy.
The United States realized that it was strategically disadvantaged compared to China in this area vital to its economy and national security. It has restarted an inactive rare earth mine in California and is investigating potential new mine sites in Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming. But these mines will take more than a decade to come on stream.
That’s why the discovery of synthetic tetrataenite is so exciting, says Jonathan Hykawy. The compound is so strong that manufacturers could make permanent magnets out of it for all but the most demanding machines. If that happens, the United States could itself fill a large part of the magnet market and reduce its needs for certain rare earths. And that would mean a huge change in the relationship between America and China. The United States would no longer be beholden to a competitor for these key materials or dependent on them for certain parts essential to the production of vital technology.
There is, however, a potential downside. Rare earths are not only used in the production of permanent magnets. They are used in fiber optics, in radiation scanners, in televisions, in personal electronics. If much of the rare earth market disappears because of tetrataenite, Hykawy says, production of all these other important rare earths could be disrupted. They could become much more expensive to produce, potentially driving up the cost of a range of consumer and industrial goods.
But it will still be a long time before tetrataenite is able to disrupt existing markets, says Laura Lewis. She says there’s still a lot of testing to be done to find out if laboratory tetrataenite is as tough and as useful as material from outer space. And even if it turns out that good, it will take five to eight years of “pedaling the metal” before anyone can make permanent magnets out of it.
In the meantime, Chinese competitors are working hard to source rare earths themselves. The United States invests in mines in Australia; explorations are underway in Malaysia and the Japanese are looking for ways to extract elements from mud mined from the seabed. Jonathan Hykawy says if countries are willing to invest in rare earth mining and tolerate the environmental implications, there’s no reason they can’t level the playing field with China.
“If we were willing to pay enough to produce these things, you can overcome these problems and you can produce these things in an environmentally friendly way,” he says. “It’s no worse than mining and aluminum production, for example.”
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