Archive for rare earth elements
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These were, at least, interesting to me:
Following up on earlier theoretical predictions, MIT researchers have now demonstrated experimentally the existence of a fundamentally new kind of magnetic behavior, adding to the two previously known states of magnetism. Ferromagnetism—the simple magnetism of a bar magnet or compass needle—has been known for centuries. In a second type of magnetism, antiferromagnetism, the magnetic fields of the ions within a metal or alloy cancel each other out. In both cases, the materials become magnetic only when cooled below a certain critical temperature. The prediction and discovery of antiferromagnetism, the basis for the read heads in today’s computer hard disks, won Nobel Prizes in physics for Louis Neel in 1970 and for MIT professor emeritus Clifford Shull in 1994. The experimental work showing the existence of this new state, called a quantum spin liquid (QSL), is reported in the journal Nature. The QSL is a solid crystal, but its magnetic state is described as liquid: Unlike the other two kinds of magnetism, the magnetic orientations of the individual particles within it fluctuate constantly, resembling the constant motion of molecules within a true liquid.
DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory regained the lead in high-performance computing, enjoyed record-setting recognition for its research and became a showpiece for renewable energy technology during 2012. ORNL’s 2012 included achievements in both research and support. ORNL solidified its standing in world-class scientific computing with the upgrade of the Jaguar supercomputer to the 27-petaflop/s Titan, regaining the top spot on the TOP500 list of the world’s supercomputers. Titan also proved to be one of the world’s most energy efficient number crunchers, ranking No. 3 on the Green500 list. The Mars Curiosity rover successfully landed on the Red Planet and began transmitting historic data back to Earth, thanks in part to ORNL’s role in making the radioisotope-fueled generators that power the NASA vehicle and its suite of instruments. ORNL set a record for R&D 100 Awards, often called the Oscars of science and technology. Ten technologies involving ORNL research were named among R&D Magazine’s top 100. The awards reflected the laboratory’s strength in advanced materials research, including technologies related to high-temperature superconducting wire, super-tough protective coatings, advanced absorbents, an advanced rolling mill process and a low-cost, lightweight robotic hand based on additive manufacturing and fluid power.
By showing that tiny particles injected into a liquid crystal medium adhere to existing mathematical theorems, physicists at the University of Colorado Boulder have opened the door for the creation of a host of new materials with properties that do not exist in nature. The findings show that researchers can create a “recipe book” to build new materials of sorts using topology, a major mathematical field that describes the properties that do not change when an object is stretched, bent or otherwise “continuously deformed.” Published online in the journal Nature, the study also is the first to experimentally show that some of the most important topological theorems hold up in the real material world, said CU-Boulder physics department Assistant Professor Ivan Smalyukh, a study senior author. The research could lead to upgrades in liquid crystal displays, like those used in laptops and television screens, to allow them to interact with light in new and different ways. One possibility is to create liquid crystal displays that are even more energy efficient, Smalyukh said, extending the battery life for the devices they’re attached to. The research supports the goals laid out by the White House’s Materials Genome Initiative, Smalyukh said, which seeks to deploy “new advanced materials at least twice as fast as possible today, at a fraction of the cost.”
Nature’s Richard Van Noorden gazes into the crystal ball on a number of science topics, and issues his predictions for the new year. He writes, “Samarium hexaboride might be the next star of materials science, following hints last year that it is a topological insulator — conducting electricity on its surface, but behaving as an insulator inside. Graphene will remain a major celebrity, so expect a flood of reports about copycat materials such as boron nitride, tantalum disulphide and other two-dimensional sheets that can be stacked or sandwiched in precise layers.”
Because modern computers have to depict the real world with digital representations of numbers instead of physical analogues, to simulate the continuous passage of time they have to digitize time into small slices. This kind of simulation is essential in disciplines from medical and biological research, to new materials, to fundamental considerations of quantum mechanics, and the fact that it inevitably introduces errors is an ongoing problem for scientists. Scientists at the DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have now identified and characterized the source of tenacious errors and come up with a way to separate the realistic aspects of a simulation from the artifacts of the computer method. ”A simulation of a physical process on a computer cannot use the exact, continuous equations of motion; the calculations must use approximations over discrete intervals of time,” says one of the Berkeley Lab researchers, David Sivak. “It’s well known that standard algorithms that use discrete time steps don’t conserve energy exactly in these calculations.”
Silicon wafers destined to become photovoltaic cells can take a bruising through assembly lines, as they are oxidized, annealed, purified, diffused, etched, and layered to reach their destinies as efficient converters of the sun’s rays into useful electricity. All those refinements are too much for 5 percent to 10 percet of the costly wafers. They have micro-cracks left over from incomplete wafer preparation, which causes them to break on the conveyers or during cell fabrication. Scientists at the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory have developed an instrument that puts pressure on the wafers to find which ones are too fragile to make it through the manufacturing process-and then kicks out those weak wafers before they go through their costly enhancement. NREL’s Silicon Photovoltaic Wafer Screening System is a cube-shaped furnace about 15 inches each side, and can be retrofitted into an assembly line. The loss in revenue due to broken wafers- which increases dramatically as the wafers move closer to completion-is an important barrier to solar energy becoming cost competitive with other energy technologies. Manufacturers need better, less expensive ways to make the cells.
Jamaica may be able to benefit from newly found deposits of rare-earth elements that are key ingredients for smartphones, computers and numerous other high-tech goods, the Caribbean island’s top mining official reports. Science, Technology, Energy & Mining Minister Philip Paulwell says Japanese researchers believe they have found “high concentrations of rare-earth elements” in the country’s red mud, or bauxite residue. In a statement to Jamaica’s Parliament, Paulwell said researchers from Japan’s Nippon Light Metal Co. believe rare-earth elements can be efficiently extracted in Jamaica, where a once-flourishing bauxite industry has fallen on hard times. Paulwell touted the discovery as a potentially significant boon for the Caribbean island’s chronically sputtering economy. A pilot program will establish the scope of any potential commercial project on Jamaica, which is about the size of the state of Connecticut. The environmental and planning agency has already authorized the pilot program but other government agencies still need to examine it. Nippon Light Metal has agreed to invest $3 million in buildings and equipment for the pilot project while also being responsible for operating costs. Any rare-earth elements produced during this phase will be jointly owned by Jamaica and the Japanese company. Negotiations for commercialization are expected to occur at a later date.
A nanoscale coating that’s at least 95 percent air repels liquid and causes it to recoil from treated surfaces. In addition to super stain-resistant clothes, the coating could lead to breathable garments that protect soldiers and scientists from chemicals, and advanced waterproof paints that dramatically reduce drag on ships. Droplets of solutions that would normally damage either your shirt or your skin recoil when they touch the new “superomniphobic surface.” Of more than 100 liquids, only two chlorofluorocarbons were able to penetrate the coating. Chlorofluorocarbons are chemicals used in refrigerators and air conditioners. The “superomniphobic surface” repelled coffee, soy sauce, and vegetable oil, as well as toxic hydrochloric and sulfuric acids that could burn skin. The coating is also resistant to gasoline and various alcohols.
Relative stock prices of Molycorp (blue line) and Lynas (green) compared to Dow Jones Industrial Average (red) since August increase in China’s rare earth exports quota. Source: Yahoo Finance.
Recent developments around the world related to rare earth elements continue to suggest that strategic concerns are being supplanted by shorter-term economic, environmental and technical considerations, all of which are adding together to put tensions over REE supplies on the back burner.
In no particular order, here are some of the major news items that are coming into play.
• For the previous six years, China has been pulling back on the amount of rare earth mining and exports, but that changed last week when the nation surprised some observers by actually increasing the total export tonnage for 2012. According to a story (sub. req’d) in the Wall Street Journal, the amount of the increase wasn’t huge, about 2.7 percent, and it probably won’t make a difference anyway because demand for exports have declined significantly.
The period of restricting exports (which paralleled sharply rising prices) was triggered by many causes, many of which are still being debated among business and economic circles. But, clearly, two significant and linked considerations stimulated Chinese officials in the past to impose restraints. The first, was (and still is) China’s desire to cut down on REE-related environmental damage and bootleg deals, the most onerous of which have been small and corruption-prone mines. The second is China’s desire to ensure a short- and long-term supply of REEs for the nation’s humming energy, transportation and electronics industries. To accomplish both, China combined sharp export limits with promulgation of new environmental and business regulations. These moves have consolidated most, if not all, of REE mining and refining to a limited group of certified companies. However, tough regulations and falling prices (due to falling international demand) have meant that even “blessed” REE producers in China are unable or unwilling to meet their theoretical export quota, and, according to a Bloomberg story, REE exports have actually declined—regardless of the export ceiling—by 36 percent this year.
• Although the US has taken allegations of unfair REE trade practices by China to the WTO, the above mentioned shortfall in the sales of exports has taken much of the wind out of the WTO pleadings. Demand for REE supplies by US, European and Japanese manufacturers has dropped considerably as each of these geographic regions endure unpredictable economies and significant drops in consumer spending ability. With China’s REE trade restrictions easing, another bit of nasty fallout is the financial effect on REE mining enterprises outside of China. After China raised the export limit, sector business analysts immediately slashed the value of the US-based Molycorp, which had already been struggling to mount significant competition to China. For example, JP Morgan Chase immediately lowered its estimated value of a share of Molycorp by 35 percent (from $11.50 to $8.50), a gloomy sign for a company that wants to a vertically integrated RE provider and consumer. Australia-based Lynas Corp. has also seen its share price beaten down in the past 30 days (see chart at top), unfortunate news for a company that also has had the opening of a major refining plant in Malaysia repeatedly delayed. Vertical integration and new refining initiatives are tough to swallow when falling prices play havoc with the mathematical models of the present value of future revenues and internal rates of return.
• There is a new alternative to traditional REE mining (new to me, at least). I ran into this when I saw an announcement about a presentation made last week at the recent ACS meeting about progress being made by researchers at Oak Ridge National Lab in extracting uranium from seawater. In brief, an ORNL group has been experimenting with special high surface area, high-capacity (”HiCap”) fibers. According to Chris Janke, one of the inventors and a member of the lab’s Materials Science and Technology Division, “HiCap effectively narrows the fiscal gap between what exists today and what is needed to economically extract some of the ocean’s estimated 4.5 billion tons of uranium. Although dissolved uranium exists in concentrations of just 3.2 parts per billion, the sheer volume means there would be enough to fuel the world’s nuclear reactors for centuries.” HiCap fibers have also been used to extract other toxic metals from water.
Janke goes on to explain how the fibers work. He says, “Our HiCap adsorbents are made by subjecting high-surface area polyethylene fibers to ionizing radiation, then reacting these pre-irradiated fibers with chemical compounds that have a high affinity for selected metals.” He says the uranium is extracted from the fibers using an acid elution method, and the fibers can be regenerated and reused.
So, it slowly dawned on me that if they can use HiCap to extract uranium, why not rare earths? Indeed, it turns out that HiCap fibers are a candidate for REE extraction. Just to be clear, ORNL HiCap fibers were manufactured by a custom spinning company in Florida, Hills Inc., in conjunction with the lab. And, in a prescient move, late last month R&D Magazine recognized Hills Inc. and ORNL as joint recipients of a 2012 R&D 100 award for using the fibers to extract a variety of metals. But, Hills Inc. is a specialty spinning company, not a materials developer. Regrettably, the R&D award omitted the significant development role of another company, the Australia-based Water Resources Group and WRG’s Campbell Applied Physics division.
Once I got directed to WRG/CAP, it didn’t take much to turn up mention in the company’s April 2012 quarterly report that
[T]he Company is investigating the application of its O3CD System to economically extract and separate rare earth elements, which have become increasingly important in the defense, alternative energy and communications industries. The project will be developed in cooperation with the US Department of Energy’s largest science and energy laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Further commercial agreements are expected to follow in the near term, which may involve WRG entering into a joint venture to share the revenue from the sale of the rare earth metals.
The company’s most recent annual report (PDF) also provides some revealing information.
Recent meetings between ORNL and CAP have focused on investigation of optimum techniques for identification and extraction of REE. A combination of CAP’s O3CD front end system, employing a REE optimized [capacitive desalination], followed by one of several candidate separation technologies from ORNL could enable economical extraction of REE as metal sulphides, metal oxides or zero-valence metals. … CAP and ORNL recognize the opportunity for combining their resources to demonstrate their first-rate capabilities in extracting REE from waste streams on a commercial scale, and to develop a new, reliable source of these materials for the United States. In order to fast track testing, CAP will have access to the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source facility located at Oak Ridge. This unique facility provides the most intense pulsed neutron beams in the world for scientific research and industrial development.
In March the US, Japan and European Union filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against China contending that its export rules violate international trade rules. At present, China controls about 95 percent of the global supply of rare earth metals. According to a Voice of America article, President Obama “is pursuing the trade complaint so American companies can compete fairly against foreign business in the production of goods that require the use of the rare earths.”
The interesting thing is that the US does not have a rare earth industry, strictly speaking, according Jeffrey Green in an interview last week with The Gold Report. Green is founder of J.A. Green & Company, a consulting and strategic planning serving the US industrial base. Green explained, “The US imports components and end products containing rare earths rather than the metals themselves in most industries. … The reality is that US demand appears low only because we’re importing the products that already contain them.”
He cautions that discussions of rare earth shortages can be misleading because the supply and demand of the individual rare earth metals are not the same. The so-called light rare earths, lanthanum and cerium, for example, are plentiful, while heavy rare earths like dysprosium and yttrium are less abundant, and supplies are more likely to fall short. Also, at the federal level, a broad view of the problem is missing because of what Green calls “stovepipes of activity,” where each agency evaluates its vulnerability only in terms of its own interests.
Green explained in the interview that the rare earth supply chain actually is comprised of four or five industries: mining, ore processing, metal production, alloy production and magnet/component production. He says Washington policy makers believe “the free market will sort this supply chain out. They fail to look deeper at what the supply chain looks like. …Washington needs to realize that all roads lead to China.”
China’s near-monopoly on RE supplies and its two-tiered pricing structure has consequences that ripple through the entire supply chain for RE magnets. The two-tiered pricing system offers favorable terms that incentivize moving production to China, where access to REs is not restricted by export quotas and where the “inside” price is up to 25 percent less. As a result, Green expects to see more processors, alloy makers and magnet manufacturers move their operations to China. Eventually, he predicts, magnet users will move to China, which would mean an economic loss to the US, open a vulnerability for defense applications and lead to “IP leakage.”
The announcement by Molycorp that it is reopening its Mountain Pass RE mine has taken the edge of the urgency in the Capitol to develop a comprehensive policy toward RE supplies. The Mountain Pass project is expected to begin producing by the end of this year. A online story at Resource Investing News says the mine is expected to have a lifespan of about 30 years. Mostly, it will produce lanthanum, cerium, neodymium and praseodymium, although the company expected to be able to produce “commercially significant quantities” of the heavy REs, including europium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium.
However, Green points out that part of Molycorp’s supply chain is “inherently tied to some of the intellectual property and production facilities in China,” and, according to him, the company is planning to export 7-12 percent of its production capacity to China. Because China changes its export quotas every year, he says one big question is whether Molycorp has been able to negotiate long-term agreements with China to get its US natural resources back out of China.
Green outlines a few ways the WTO case might resolve. Least likely is that China would change its current policies. China might drop its two-tier pricing, but China is expected to be a net importer of REs by 2015, which would remove any excess from the marketplace. Another possibility is that it might restructure its export quota system to allow more liberal export of the relatively plentiful light REs, while restricting heavy RE exports. Finally, China may simply refuse to comply if the case is decided against them.
Green argues that reestablishing a RE industry in the US will be difficult because the domestic demand for REs is not stable, and won’t be until there are companies that buy the material. He says, “To successfully reestablish a rare earth industry, we have to capture each stage of the supply chain, working back incrementally.”
Are there non-Chinese sources of RE? Yes: Last week we reported on a newly discovered deposit in Brazil. Green said there are about 400 publicly traded rare earth companies (although he’s confident they won’t all survive). Geology professor, Frances Wall (University of Exeter, Cornwall, UK), says “Don’t stop using rare earths.” In an article in Materials Today, she strives to assure materials scientists that there are plenty of rare earths out there. “It is just a matter of patience (please) whilst the challenges of developing new deposits are overcome.”
Wall says there are over 800 potential deposits to consider, but Wall echoes Green’s comments that the economics of development cannot compete with Chinese prices. She cites four significant challenges to developing new sources.
Here’s what we are hearing:
Kyocera Communications Inc., a San Diego-based provider of wireless phones in the Americas and a wholly owned subsidiary of Kyocera International Inc., has received the Director’s Recycling Award for environmental programs by the City of San Diego’s Environmental Services Department. It is the twelfth consecutive year the City has awarded Kyocera Communications for its recycling efforts. Kyocera, which operates multiple divisions in San Diego, now has earned 19 such awards from the City - more than any other business in San Diego, according to the ESD. Kyocera also was recently honored by the state of California with the Waste Reduction Award, recognizing its recycling and environmentally-friendly business practices. In honor of Earth Day, Kyocera Communications will be holding an eWaste collection drive. The drive is part of Kyocera’s city-wide eWaste Recycling Program benefitting Cell Phones for Soldiers. Kyocera Corp. was founded 53 years ago with a philosophy of “harmonious coexistence” and a commitment to social responsibility and environmental protection. In 2011 Kyocera Communications recycled more than 26,730 pounds of paper, plastic, electronic and other waste materials otherwise destined for landfills.
Morgan Thermal Ceramics announces the availability of its plastic refractory monolithics in both cast and gun grades. The Plascast and Plasgun materials are ideal for use in lining walls and roofs in iron and steel applications including reheat furnaces, offering an alternative to difficult to place plastic ram material that must be installed with a high pressure pneumatic hammer gun. The unique cement-free binder system in the Plascast and Plasgun products combines the advantages of a plastic refractory’s thermal-shock resistance with the ease and speed of placement benefits of a conventional castable. The clay-bonded Plascast materials are supplied dry. Once mixed with water they can be installed by casting or pumping into place like a conventional castable. Compared with refractory plastics, the Plascast materials significantly reduce installation time, yet provide a high quality material with superior hot strength, thermal shock resistance and reduced drying shrinkage. The end result is a furnace lining with uniform consistency and rapid strength development throughout the working temperature range.
(Keystone Edge) In the 1967 film The Graduate, the future was summed up in one word: “plastics.” Today, for an expanding Latrobe firm, the one word is “ceramics.” Aggressive Grinding Services, which specializes in precision grinding of super-hard materials, is making a commitment to ceramics in the form of a new, dedicated facility, part of a 14,000-plus-square-foot expansion. With new, state-of-the-art equipment and an anticipated 50 added jobs over the next two years, the company anticipates significant growth in ceramics, says Jeffrey Craig, the chief operating officer. Aggressive grinds carbide, ceramics and other such materials into complex geometries to tolerances within the millionths of an inch for industries including oil and gas, aerospace, mining, construction, nuclear energy, transportation and manufacturing. With tungsten carbide prices up dramatically, ceramics is emerging as a cleaner, cheaper alternative for some of these sectors. Ceramics is also gaining favor over titanium in artificial joints, so the facility opens lucrative, new prospective markets for Aggressive such as medical devices.
(BBC) A metal shield designed to stop radiation leaking from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor is being tested by a company based in Stoke-on-Trent. Ceram has been testing the strength of the steel dome-shaped cover at its plant in Penkhull. It will replace the concrete casing which was put over the plant in Ukraine after the 1986 accident. Research teams are dropping 25kg blocks of ice on it and simulating extreme weather conditions. The company said the existing casing was deteriorating, increasing the risk of radioactive material leaking into the environment. It said the new shield would confine the site for the next 100 years. Ceram chief executive Tony Kinsella says, “What we’re trying to do here is to make sure that the outer structure can withstand the huge pressure of something like a force 3 tornado. [We need] to make sure it won’t part, that none of the panels will come off and start to expose radioactive material inside.”
(New York Times) The Australian company building a rare-earth refinery in Malaysia sought to counter critics who are concerned that the plant could pose radioactive hazards, laying out detailed responses on Thursday that it said refuted the many “false allegations” made about the plant. The company, Lynas, said the first phase of its project would be ready to open in two weeks. But it is unclear when the plant will begin operations, as the Malaysian government has withheld the company’s temporary operating license while it hears appeals from people opposed to the facility. The plant, which has been plagued by delays and protests by residents worried about possible health and environmental risks, is designed to help break China’s stranglehold on the production of rare earths. Another project is under construction in the California desert near Death Valley.
With rapid innovation and significant cost-cutting, organic light-emitting diodes represent the technology best-placed to carve off a share of the $100-billion liquid-crystal display market, according to a Lux Research report. OLED technology, which increasingly is used in smartphones, will reach a market size of nearly $11 billion in 2017, up from $1.9 billion in 2011, as it achieves cost parity with LCDs for small-area displays. However, OLEDs will require further innovation in order to successfully target larger-screen displays such as televisions. “Smartphones and OLEDs are a match made in heaven, but higher cost barriers exist for larger-area OLED applications,” says Jonathan Melnick, Lux Research Analyst and lead author of the report titled, “Cutting Up the LCD Pie: Calculating the Billion-Dollar Slices from Display Innovation. Based on our component materials and manufacturing cost analysis, OLEDs will decrease from their current $3,000/m2 for small-area displays to be cost competitive with LCDs by 2016.”
AGC, a world-leading manufacturer of glass, chemicals and high-tech materials, recently conducted a cornerstone-laying ceremony in Guaratinguetá, São Paulo State, Brazil, to commemorate the start of construction on its first manufacturing facility in the country. The facility in Guaratinguetá, which is scheduled to begin operations starting in 2013, will manufacture architectural and automotive glass. By 2016, the facility is expected to have a workforce of approximately 500 people most of who will be hired locally. By then, the production capacity is expected to reach 220,000 tons of construction glass per year. The facility is also expected to produce automotive glass for 500,000 vehicles per year also by 2016. At the ceremony, AGC president & CEO Kazuhiko Ishimura touched on three main points, which were 1) the importance of Brazil to the AGC Group, 2) the group’s endeavors for sustainability, and 3) AGC’s contribution to Brazilian society through its products.
Alfa Aesar, a Johnson Matthey Company, has launched digital versions of all catalogs and brochures. The digital versions are electronic replicas of our popular print catalogs and brochures, featuring page-by-page technology with an easy to navigate table of contents and search function. The new format is a sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative for users who no longer wish to receive our printed literature. The interactive catalogs and brochures can be printed, emailed or saved as a PDF, enabling users to easily find and share the information they need. They have also been designed using HTML5 technology and are optimized for display on both desktop browsers as well as tablet PC’s and iPads.
A story on Mining.com reports that the Brazilian mining company, World Mineral Resources, has discovered a large reserve of neodymium in the western state of Bahia, Brazil. According to the story, the deposit will yield about 28 million tons of neodymium and is worth about $8.4 billion. This is the first discovery of neodymium in Brazil, and its potential is second only to China’s Baotu, the world’s largest deposit of this rare earth element.
It is difficult to find rare earth mineral deposits that are large enough to mine economically. The story reports that the going rate for neodymium is $300,000, and the global market for the element is worth $5 billion.
The quality of the ore appears to be similar to that of the Chinese deposit. The story cites a Portuguese-language article in the Brazilian newspaper Jornal Nova Fronteira in which WMR says the ore grade (concentration) is 12.75 percent, compared to Chinese grades of 12-14 percent.
WMR is owned by Brazilian billionaire and company CEO, João Carlos Cavalcanti. A trained geologist, he is known for his “mystical” lifestyle and eccentric tendencies, according to a profile three years ago in the New York Times.
The Brazilian newspaper reports that he has just returned from a round of project presentation in the United States and Canada, where he met with investors interested in three major ore projects: bauxite, iron and rare earths.
Bahia is well-acquainted with the mining industry. Brazil’s third largest mineral-producing state, it also produces gold, copper concentrate, magnesite, chromite, rock salt, manganese, phospahtes, talcum and more. It also has a major port in the capital Salvador.