Kristen, thanks for the overview on rare earth metals and specifically the background on what's causing the shortages. I think the three scenarios you keyed in on at the end of your post could be really instrumental for engineers looking for alternatives to these materials or at least a strategy for lessening their dependence on them for their designs. Given the state of the world economy and global tensions, constant price spikes seem to be the new order. I'm sure I speak for our audience when I say I'd love to hear more about each of those three strategies and I'm hoping subsequent posts in your series hit on these tactics.
As apresher says, excellent article. This is the type of issue that forces design engineers to adapt an find alternatives. This is a good thing for all. Whether the price increases are due to supply shortages, environmental costs other factors, we are often forced to explore alternatives. Somtimes this efforts leads to better designs.
Nice article, Kristen. And it's an important subject. I know Molycorp had come back online -- now that rare earth elements command a significant price again, but I didn;t realize that dysprosium would not come online for years yet. I know Australian mines have come back online. Will Australia help with some of these shortages?
@Rob Spiegel: Molycorp is planning to ramp up rare-earth production by the end of the year. There are insignificant quantities of dysprosium (Dy) and other heavy rare earths at their Mountain Pass deposit in California. The situation is a little better with the Mount Weld deposit in Australia, owned by Lynas Corp ( assuming they can get past the problems of rolling out their separation facility in Malaysia ) - but still, they will not be producing significant amounts of heavies. There are however some promising sources of heavies in Australia, including the Dubbo Zirconia Project owned by Alkane Resources; in the near term we should see some heavies from the Steenkampskraal mine in South Africa, owned by Great Western Minerals. But it will be a number of years until we have significant new quantities online. See www.rareearths.org for info on specific advanced projects that might be of interest.
Technology Metals Research, LLC
The ironic aspect of the Rare Earths is that we had a healthy flow before China started selling their production at low prices. Both the Molycorp. and the Austrialian mines closed because they couldn't compete with China's low prices. Unfortunately, it takes time and expense to ramp back up. So when China started rationing, we were stuck.
Rob, your analysis makes a lot of sense. I wonder how many other industries have been similarly affected by China undercutting competitors on prices, which wipes out the competitors, then cutting back on production and creating a shortage. Considering what a huge percentage of the world's manufacturing now occurs in, or is controlled by, China, I'd guess that there might be several other parallel situations.
That's a good question, Ann. No sure there are other examples quite like this. When China started rationing the Rare Earth elements, they insisted they were rationing what they sold with the purpose of holding back enough to make sure their own industrial needs would be met. But then they held back on selling these materials to Japan when they had a fishing dispute with Japan. So apparently they're using their rationing practices for more than just ensuring domestic need.
Thanks, Rob, for that info. That doesn't surprise me. China is certainly not the only country or political entity to ever behave like that. But what's different in their case is the fact that they control such huge volumes of so many different resources, materials, and products.
I agree, Ann. What snared us in this case was China's low price over a decade or two. We have plenty of rare earth materials in both California and Colorado. But we shut down the plants when China's low prices made our mining unprofitable. Likewise with Australia. That changed last year.
Yes, that's a tough one. You can't really keep the mine open if you can't sell the product for enough $$ to justify the cost of getting the product out. That's especially true if the cheap materials are on the market for 15 or 20 years. It's one of those situations that probably couldn't have been avoided.
Kristin, thanks for a fascinating article. It was interesting to learn that the price increases were brought about by speculation, rather than the Chinese export limits. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.
Classical economics separately recognizes the propensities to Save, Consume, or Hoard; the latter grows stronger partly in protest at poor returns on Saving. Hoarding of commodities has been on the rise ever since the credit crunch and central banks' policy responses crashed the discount rates. Commodity prices also fundamentally depend on the balance between the goods' salability and hoardability. Trade restrictions (or rumors thereof) reduce salability, leaving the good relatively more preferable for hoarding. The bubble behavior over last summer seems clearly to be a result of governments' actions, and not to changing fundamentals. But it had the effect of mobilizing decision makers, bankrupting out-of-date plans, and forcing the industry to discover the fundamental scarcity which it will have to confront in order to scale up to the dreams planners have for electric drives etc.
Great article. We all know the effect of speculation in the oil market, but most of us never think about speculation in the rare earth materials market. The fact that neodymium speculation could create such volatility surprises me.
While working on a design we always strive to use components and materials that will be widely available throughout the life of a product. It's astonishing to see that we now must not only examine the actual supply, but also examine whether the material will be wildly traded by speculators because it becomes so popular that it has visibility to investors, instead of inventors.
Right, wrong or indifferent, with the globalization of product design / manufacturing, designers and companies need to take an ever longer term view of key products, materials and technologies to insulate themselves against just such an event. This is not the first, and will not be the last. Uninterrupted supply chain will be the key to long term success, and active strategies that limit the influence of external speculation and influence will become the business normal for the future.
It appears that a big use of the rare earth elements is in permanent magnets for motor and generator fields. Why are wound-field motors and generators so bad? I know it takes a little extra power to excite the field, but you gain the ability to adjust the field strength.
Could someone better versed in motor and generator design please respond?
While virtually one element controls the world money supply, china who has a larger share of rare earth metals, continue to violate the free trade agreement. 1st by enslaving their citizens, using free trade as an economic weapon whereby their go-betweens close our small family businesses end ecport our manufacturing infrastructure, by erecting slave goods super stores across the world, and 2ndly unfair pricing to close and/or control companies or entire markets. The effects on america have been overwhelmingly devestating, our jobs exported our ports declared free trade zones, 3rdly giving them exploration permits in our geohysical territories, while refusing permits for our own exploration companies, as they control our government through bribery and extortion through their lobbies, and the american arm of the world class mafia, the federal reserve. Our free enterprize system gone, made wealthy the lawyers, judges, politicians, by Nobilities lobbies, while our nation has many slavers: gatses, buffetses, waltonses etc etc, the walton family alone take more than 30 % of our entire workforce (the lowest paid) most of whom work at wallys who have in the last 3 years deflated the walmart avg wage from 12,000 to 10,400 a year. Our current president, who spends his term campaigning, paid for by our tax revenue, works hard to destroy every scientific, and technological asset our nation has--- (proudly claims free trade with korean auto market, when they import more than 12 cars to our country while permitting 1 into theirs) No one discusses the very real globalization and free trade disguised as slavery and the return of virtual Nobility, who have taken our rights, assets, and continue to degrade our quality of life, while smiling, laughing in our faces across all forms of newsmedia, and acdemic cste system they control while taking near 40 % of our nations taxation as interest on money they say they lent us, which is continually stolen by the fedral reserve who refuse audit---3 presidents who tried to oust them were assassinated, Lincoln, Garfield, and Kenedy, Yet if we are to survive as a nation we will have to remove federal reserve, take back the assets they aquired with stolen funds (rockefellers, and relatives rothchilds) have amassed more than 300 trillion in world wide assets from stolen cash from americas cash flow, restore import taxation, resurrect our manufacturing infrastructure, or make what we consume and export to the world, rebuld a military capable of protecting us from the tyrannical hoards that inhabit earth, because we do grow 1/3 of the worlds food supply, and sell it cheaply, or give it away. The time to restore our independent nation is running short under obama et al. While we are administrated by affirmative action, its bizarre
Good question! There are several reasons. One key reason is that rare earth magnets can produce an equivalent magnetic field with far less volume and mass than copper windings, or even traditional magnets. Both aspects are important in applications like wind turbine generators. In servo applications, these translate into very low moment of inertia for the rotor, which means very high responsiveness.
Another advantage is that no current needs to flow to create the magnetic field, which typically adds a couple percentage points to the efficiency of the motor or generator. In addition, no brushes or slip rings are necessary to get current into the rotor, which saves maintenance. (Yes, I know that induction motors/generators share this.)
China's retoric and refusal to load Japanese ships with already paid for REE's was the main factor in cost run up then speculators ran with it.
We did well for 120 yrs without REE's in e motors/generators so it's not a big deal.
As for REE's making motors lighter, smaller is not true, Variable field motors are far more flexable and more power/lb is why you'll rarely see them where real power is needed in a small package. Tesla's motor is an example that couldn't be done with REE's.
REE's have thermal and too heavy guass problems as either can damage REE and other PM's.
@Jerry dycus: the alleged embargo against Japan in September 2010 (or rather the subsequent publicity generated) certainly didn't help matters, but price increases for exported rare earths were well underway by that point, triggered by the July 2010 export-quota announcement that showed there would be a 40% drop year on year. This can be clearly seen in the historical spot-price curves for individual rare-earth products.
I disagree with your comment relating to variable-field motors and Tesla Motors. Rare-earth permanent-magnet (REPM) systems see higher efficiencies, generate less heat and greater torque densities than induction machines - as acknowleged by Tesla themselves . Tesla uses their three-phase AC induction motor for other (sports-performance / control) reasons, not because it "couldn't be done" with rare earths.
@Jerry Dycus: I stand by my claim, as backed up by ghatch and Tesla Motors, that permanent magnet motors/generators, especially those employing rare earths, provide smaller, lighter, and more responsive devices for equivalent torque and power levels. I have worked directly with high performance control of both induction and permanent-magnet motors for 25 years now, and the introduction of rare-earth magnets has been pretty revolutionary in a lot of fields. The reduction in size and increase in performance of brushless servo motors has been startling.
The Tesla webpage linked by ghatch does a pretty good job of explaining why they use an induction motor, but omits the last step. For them, being able to modulate the rotor magnetic field strenght ("field weakening") permits them to trade off torque vs speed in software and electronics, meaning they don't need a mechanical transmission. A parallel hybrid like the Prius has the transmission function built into its "torque converter", so it is more effective for them to use a compact rare-earth-magnet motor.
No doubt in smaller motors REE's are better but in EV's not so much.
Variable field AC motors give far better power/size/weight especially starting torque. Induction still does very well at a little lower eff.
Old style Sep-Ex motors in bigger dia are about as eff and put out 3x's the starting torque. And the controllers for it are 25% of the price as likely the motor is too.
I put a 9hp REE motor in my EV subcar and soon afterward I found oput how little torque it had burning up trying to start up a slight hill. Yet my 3.5hp series motor easily did the job and with field weakenng pulls up to 5500rpm.
My point is that REE's are not needed for EV's, hybrids, is an obvious fact.
Don't get me wrong I like REE's, just in my wind generators where it works well I'll start building next month.
Since you work designing them could you comment on how well they are standing up to high emps, magnetism in high power REE units? I know the Prius had some problems with magnets weakening enough they had to be replaced.
Your experience with rare-earth and induction motors does not match mine at all. If what you say about the rare-earth motors were true, nobody would bother paying the premium for them for any application.
Rare-earth motors have smaller and lighter rotors than induction motors of equivalent power ratings. Because their magnetic fields are always there, they provide quicker response at higher efficiencies, including starting from stop.
You pay a significant premium for these capabilities, particularly in larger motors. Because of the permanent magnet field, you cannot field weaken them to nearly the extent that you can with induction motors. Demagnetization of the permanent magnets is at least a theoretical issue, but does not stop them from being used in applications that have the most stringent reliabilitly requirements. Proper current monitoring and control generally prevents this from being a real problem in most applications. Demagnetization does not come from steady use within design limits; it comes from a sudden overcurrent condition well outside of design limits.
Of course, the tradeoff between rare-earth and induction motors depends in part on the relative pricing betwen the materials for the two. If the required rare-earth materials get a lot more expensive, it will skew the decision toward induction motors.
It wouldn't be the first time people got fooled by hype. All types have their place and REE's is when they are cheap, lower hp. Once the price rises, temps/amps go up REE's just don't look that good.
I stated my case and I guess we'lll have to see what the next generation of hybrids and EV's brings. I'd bet almost all future over 2k lb EV's will not use REE's and far less in hybrids. Mostly REE;s under 50hp or so and not above that mostly.
I'm pricing out now for a production 1300lb EV and looking at what is available SepEx DC motors put out more power/$ and 3x's the reserve power/torque for the same amps as any REE's motor can starting and in the lower speed ranges and match them at high speed. To get the same power from a REE motor costs 4'6x's as much.
2 of these series motors in the Killicycle drag bike did 172mph, 7.8sec in the 1/4 mile show how they can be pushed. A 12hp rated they get 150hp from shows how much reserve they have. Try that with with a REE motor and you'll have some recycling to do.
And those EV'ers build DC controllers that put everyone else to shame for over a decade, over 700kw the size of a shoebox big business is just getting able to do.
In addition to shortages in regards to rare earth magnets, rare earth elements are used in multiple pigments for use in plastics and other things. As the cost of the pigments goes up, the end product goes up as well.
@Tim: rare earths are indeed used in a wide variety of other applications. Interesingly, because they are found together and have to be carefully separated, the demand dynamics of each individual element, indirectly affect the supply dynamics of them all. Quite a complex business!
This is a great article on RE market and what it means for engineers. RE elements are coproduced-the demand for and the increased supply of one makes the others abundant. Currently, neodymium dominates demand and supply since it is used to make NdFeB magnets for PM motors primarily used in hybrid cars. Yttrium used in high-temperature superconductors, lanthanum used as a catalyst and the others, used in semiconductor, lasers, and batteries, get a free ride from neodymium.
It must be remembered that the recent success of the high torque PM motor owes its success to high power semiconductor switching and processor control as much as to high energy product neodymium permanent magnets. Many researchers are investigating high starting torque RE-less induction motors using semi power switching and processors. Toyota has announced that it will have a RE-less motor in their 2014 hybrid. Chorus Motors already has an RE-less induction motor in the field able to taxi passenger jets without using jet power.
Some see a sinister motive in China to use cheap labor and an abundance of RE deposits to monopolize the RE magnet market. China has launched an ambitious wind generation campaign with the goal of producing 100-gigawats by 2020 which will require more RE than they can supply with current technology. Chinese wages are climbing and the Chinese are investigating practical ways of making wind generators without RE magnets.
(Sorry for the late comments – this topic has soared to 25+ comments in < 48 hours I've been pre-occupied)Reviewing the entire thread, I was specifically wondering if anyone had identified other rare-earth materials facing a similar jeopardy; specifically, Tantalum comes to mind.
I know that tantalum (as in tantalum chip capacitor), recently faced a similar peril.One former Engineering VP (around 2004) encouraged the R&D engineers to find a suitable replacement for tantalum caps, due to the single excavation location (somewhere n Australia) and the rising costs of that unique material. I'm wondering if Tantalum is considered "Rare-Earth", and if have any insights to the global outlook for it's use in electronics-? Maybe your future article segments will cover this-?
The issue with tantalum is not that any one source has a stranglehold on the supply, but that no one has real control over the best sources. These are in the jungles of the eastern Congo, where there is no real rule of law, and consequently the mines are fought over with deadly results. It makes the mining in the American "wild west" of the 19th century look very tame indeed. Many people think these mines are a key source of conflict in the Congolese civil war that has been raging for over a decade and has killed literally millions of people.
When I watched James Cameron's movie Avatar about the fight over mining "unobtainium" in the jungles of another planet, I immediately thought of the tantalum mining in the Congo. (I wonder if it was inspired by that.) Of course, the irony of the movie to me is that a lot of tantalum was required in the computers that created the images for the movie.
From today's Wall Street Journal: Molycorp, a large US rare-earth mining firm is buying Canada's Neo Material Technologies Inc., which makes magnets.The article mentions that Molycorp is restarting their mine in the US.Interestingly, it is noted that the mine closed because of falling prices.It had been the world's largest.Neo Material has processing facilities in China.Molycorp has plans to send material there for processing.Thus, we would see US sourced materials sent to China to processing.The reason given is that the West is reluctant to allow permits for this processing because of the pollution generated.When there are so many differences in regulation and willingness to have these materials processed in their countries it is no wonder there are supply disruptions.One thing that is problematic is the West is that we depend on these materials, but we don't want them here.Then, in China they are processed without the safeguards we would have here at home.Then we complain that the Chinese disrupt our supply.
@naperlou: Molycorp has been planning for a number of years to restart the Mountain Pass mine, doing so through what it calls Project Phoenix, the company's initiative to put in place state-of-the-art processing capabilities, to produce up to 19 ktpa of rare earths in the first phase. The planned acquisition of Neo Material Technologies does not change that and has occurred long after Project Phoenix was initiated. First materials from the revamped Mountain Pass facilities should be produced later this year, and the company has the permits to do so.
Molycorp may send semi-processed materials to Neo's facilities in China for finishing; but those plants, too, are state-of-the-art. Indeed, there are strong indications that recent regulations put in place in China provide a HIGHER standard for pollution control than those presently in place in the USA. Who'd-a-thunk, eh?
Alternatively, Molycorp could supply Neo with finished oxides and metals, which could then be used by Neo's Magnequench division to produce magnetic powders. Either way, we should not see this as an attempt by Molycorp to get materials processed in a juridcition where "regulations are lax" - that's simply not the case.
@Rob Spiegel: Molycorp has stated for some time that it thinks it can produce its rare-earth products at a LOWER cost than the Chinese presently can, because of the new technologies they've put in place, plans to use electricity generated on-site, and also because the starting grade is much higher than that in Bayun Obo, the primary source for light rare earths in China. We will almost certainly see a permanent incremental increase in Chinese production prices, as the capex for implementing pollution mitigation measures is accounted for. The leading new non-Chinese projects should be competitive on this basis...
@ghatch: I was aware that they were restarting the mine in California. That was in the news some time ago when this whole issue of China restricting export of these materials came to the fore.
As for the Chinese plannts being built under higher standards than in the US, that can often be illusory. The problem in China is not the existence of standards, but the implementation of them. It is often non-existent. I have some knowledge of the issue there. When the owner of a plant asks a US customer if he wants to include air filtration for the workers in a plant, as if it is an optional thing, then you know there are issues. By the way, that filtration will cost you. It is good that the standards are high, but until they are enforced across the board they are meaningless. You have to go there and verify for yourself. Of course, this adds to the cost as well. Apple's recent troubles with FOXCONN are an example of this.
The point in the article was not that the standards were higher or lower, though. The problem in the US is getting the permits to build. This is a completely different issue.
@naperlou: I understand your point concerning the difference between having standards, and the actual enforcement of standards. With respect to rare earths, however, note that of the 24,904 t of export quotas for rare earths that were issued in the first round of allocations for 2012, 14,358 t of them were issued on a provisional basis, to 19 out of 30 companies total. The proviso is that these companies pass pollution-control standard inspections by July 2012. Companies that are unable to do so, will have their quota allocations given to those that have already passed. Companies in the provisional category perhaps surprisingly include the Baogang Group, the world's largest producer of rare earths.
All indications are that these restrictions are being rigorously enforced. we also know that the Chinese crackdown on illegal mining has also been vigorous and mostly effective.
The problem in the US regarding permitting may have some originals at the Federal level, but the vast majority of the challenges that, say, Molycorp has faced as it has brought Mountain Pass along, relate to the location of its mine being in California. No-one in their right mind would look to start a rare-earths mine (and one for other minerals) from scratch in California. There are plenty of other far more mining-friendly states in the USA, where permitting is not as arduous.
And this is in contrast to places like Quebec in Canada, which is one of the most mining friendly jurisdictions in the world, but which has this reputation without appearing to compromise on environmental or other considerations when permitting.
Yes, Naperlou, that applies to IP violations as well. One of my sources told me China's regulators are reluctant to shut down a plant that is producing knock-offs if the plant is the major employer in a small village and the plant also produces legitimate products.
I think you've raised an excellent point, naperlou, one which applies at least by analogy to several other disconnects. The US ships plastic to be sorted before recycling/parts to be assembled/raw materials to be processed or assembled or refined or something, and then ships the product of all these back here, and then complains about human rights, health, environmental, pollution and/or labor problems, and/or supply disruptions or competition in pricing. While some or all of those complaints may be justified in a general way on the world stage, we often act as if the problems we generate as customers have nothing to do with us, because we depend on these materials or processes but don't want them here.
While there are distinct acvantages to PM motors and generators, they are not the only kind. What about wound-field machines that have been around for >100 years? True, you have to use a little extra power to excite the field, but you gain the ability to vary the field by adjusting the field current.
My point is that even if permanent magnet materials were to diaappear entirely, we would could still be make quite satisfactory machines, especially in the larger sizes.
Short term shortages due to any number of situations, geographical, economic or political must be resolved with traditional methods. I know I'm going out on a limb here, but there are no shortages of many rare earth materials on the Moon.
Before you start rolling your eyes - consider that over the next twenty years an infrastructure for moving materials between Earth and Moon orbits may be established based on Buzz Aldrin's cycler ship concept, making shipments from the Moon downright inexpensive. The first robot miners on the Moon are little more than bulldozers scraping lunar soil off the surface and into launching facilities. Payloads are electromagnetically pushed into lunar orbit, dock with the cycler ship and delivered into Earth orbit. Payload capsules filled with lunar soil are dropped from orbit to processing plants on Earth.
Granted, the start up costs are huge, but they are an investment which could pay dividends for many decades to come. All of the needed technology to build and operate this infrastructure is readily available right now.
The popular concept is that space commercialization means communication satellites and tourism, but I think that mining the Lunar surface is the real first step and we can take those steps in the very near future.
What should be the perception of a product’s real-world performance with regard to the published spec sheet? While it is easy to assume that the product will operate according to spec, what variables should be considered, and is that a designer obligation or a customer responsibility? Or both?
Biomimicry has already found its way into the development of robots and new materials, with researchers studying animals and nature to come up with new innovations. Now thanks to researchers in Boston, biomimicry could even inform the future of electrical networks for next-generation displays.
Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.