I would have to agree that any kind of diversification and alternative material that would reduce dependence on China is a good thing. Seems like the US is far too dependent on China for everything from a source for cheap outsourced labor to financial support and now materials. How critical are these rare earth materials to the production of cell phones and the like?
China's limiting these elements has also affected speaker development in a big way. Prices for neodymium magnets and the like are threatening to triple this year due to demand for powerful, lightweight motor components.
China has been producing 95 percent of rare earth mostly because the rare earths were cheap coming from China. So the mines in the United States were effectively closed since they were not profitable. That is, until China slammed down export restrictions.
Now that Australia and the United States have resumed production, we'll find that rare earths are not so rare.
Thanks to everyone for the wealth of interesting comments. Rob has put his finger on a key point by saying rare earths are not so rare, unless you expect baseline prices. Any time someone controls 95 percent of a market and has kept prices low, we should expect that state of affairs to be temporary and unstable. Chuck is right, environmental reasons for restrictions were just a useful excuse to cover for nationalism, though China had better start being realistic about its numerous environmental disasters-in-the-making soon. What SoCalPE said about the music industry will be true in many verticals, though I bet that once mines in Nebraska, Northwest Territories in Canada, and other sites ramp up, the price differential will be less than might be expected. Ultimately, though, it's good to see the academic researchers mentioned in Science News consider alternatives at an early date.
I don't think the Chinese government is being completely disingenuous about environmental concerns. They have been faced with growing public pressure, sometimes in the form of violent riots, to address environmental problems. Maintaining social stability is a key goal of the Chinese government, and this means preventing violent riots, which means making some effort to prevent the most egregious environmental abuses. One result of this is that it is becoming more difficult to source things like chromate conversion coatings from China. One supplier even tried to convince us that hexavalent chromium was going to be completely banned in China as of December 31, 2010. Of course, this was completely untrue, but we later surmised that the supplier was trying to steer us towards a chromate-free alternative because they were under pressure from the government to clean up their operation.
In some ways, the process of economic development which China is going through now is similar to what the U.S. and other countries went through in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a period of rapid economic expansion, accompanied with an extremely laissiez faire, Wild West, robber baron style of capitalism. Protections for workers and the environment were almost non-existant, and there was a massive gap between the rich and the poor which created a lot of social instability. Books like Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" (while written from an obvious political perspective) document this. In response to the social instability, protections for workers and the environment were eventually put into place, and the society became more middle-class. This is the society most of us grew up with.
For anyone who is looking for more information about efforts to find replacements for rare earths, there was an excellent article recently in Science News.
Everyone who is concerned about powerful magnets for the growing market of motors (for example for Electric Vehicles) does not understand that Tesla already invented the solution over 100 years ago: an electric motor does not need a magnet. Both synchronous and asynchronous alternatives are available, for example the asynchronous ACIM (AC Induction Motor which has either a solid metal rotor or a highly conductive "cage" rotor which means it is theoretical the same as a short circuited wound rotor motor) and the wound rotor motor as a synchonous motor, where the field is generated by a DC current through the rotor field instead of using permanent magnets. In high powered EV application this motor has actually the advantage that you can control the field strength to give a wider band of operation and you do not need to waste power in counter-acting the field to get field weakening at higher rotational speed. many AC motor drives have the feature to add a modulation to the 3-phase armature voltages to overlay the motive vector with a field weakening vector to allow the motor to run fast with higher torque, by wasting electric power to counter-act the permanent magnetic field. In a wound rotor motor you simple reduce the current through the field...
These motor types are not uncommon constructions - for example every single car alternator is a wound rotor motor, applied as generator...
i did not even address the plain DC motors such as the brushed series motors used in Forklifs and many other applications.
In short: we can live perfectly happy without rare earth materials for electric motors as this just means selecting a different design. It may take a little time to transition but that should not be a problem in the time scale we are talking about.
For loudspeakers the situation may be much different and I agree that a permanent magnet is one of the better ways to create sound.
A geologist friend of mine said that the US and Australian rare earth mines will be mining the ore alright, but that it will be sent to China for processing which is the dirty part. If this is true, the Chinese seem to have double standards, ie. they don't want to dirty their environment with Chinese rare earths, only imported :-)
California State University, Chico was the first school in California to offer an ABET-accredited degree program in mechatronic engineering. Now its California Mechatronics Center works with industry on machinery, robotics, and surveillance vehicles.
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