Changing the Way We Use Neodymium

Introduction

Throughout previous posts, we have explored the basics of neodymium usage, the global flow of the material, the energy demand that comes with its production, and the subsequent impact that it has on people, the environment, and the world. While each of these areas is filled with its own complex factors, concerns, and interdependencies, certain common themes have emerged from the study of neodymium usage. By connecting these dots and considering the impacts that potential actions would have on a global scale, we are able to identify certain possible solutions to the issues associated with neodymium as a material, as well as the likely reactions that different bodies would have to those changes. This post will begin by recapping the most important concerns. Afterwards, we will discuss the changes that can be made through the individual lenses of materials, energy, and the environment, as well as the intersection of the three. Finally, for each aspect of neodymium’s material flow we will identify the possible response to and acceptance of these attempted solutions to gain better insight into the task before us.

Recap of Neodymium

Neodymium is a rare earth element which, when combined with iron and boron, can create magnets with incredible properties. Since these magnets are very small, very powerful, and never lose their charge, they are used in a wide variety of applications. The three most important uses of Nd-Fe-B magnets are: speakers, computer memory, and generators. Since the number of technologies which use these magnets has risen steadily with the advent of laptops, wind turbines, and electric vehicles, the yearly demand of neodymium has risen exponentially, increasing at a rate of 7% each year, and is projected to continue to do so. This incredible rate brings with it several concerns. If neodymium mining and production fails to keep up with this rate of demand, the price will increase. Such a spike in cost could hinder the green energy fields which currently rely on the material. On the other hand, if mining and production do manage to keep up with demand, there could be other potential harms. Regulatory oversight of neodymium mining is already lacking in some areas, and increased fervor in mining the material would only make the environmental issues associated with improper disposal of waste water even worse. To top it all off, the manufacture of neodymium magnets, particularly the mining phase of the material, is incredibly energy-intensive. To find a solution to this complex challenge, one must consider the various material, energy, and environmental concerns associated with the material’s use over all stages and across several different acting bodies.

mountain_view_mine660

Solutions in Retrieval

Before neodymium can be processed into Nd-Fe-B magnets, it must be extracted from monazite or bastnäsite ores. The first concern that comes to mind when considering this mining phase is the energy demand: 743 megajoules per kilogram of neodymium mined and extracted. Reducing this energy demand will only become more difficult. As current sources of the required ores are depleted, mining operations will have to look deeper and deeper into the earth’s crust, which of course, will require more energy-intensive operations. Mining Global claims that the secret lies in “continually monitoring, tweaking and reporting new updates [in order to] steadily improve system stability and unplanned downtime” and case studies have shown companies which successfully generate clean, on-site energy via renewable sources, or generate electricity to use via existing parts of the process, such as one which “generates electricity while transporting bauxite ore downhill from the mine to the rail station.” The next major concern with mining is the array of associated environmental issues. The water used in mining is contaminated with various minerals, metals, and chemicals. While this “wastewater” is ideally treated and disposed of in clean and safe ways, under-regulated countries often allow companies to dump this wastewater in nearby “tailing ponds”, where it can contaminate local water sources or cause health problems for the local population. The simple-to-conceive yet difficult-to-implement solution to this environmental concern is to implement better, stricter regulatory oversight to require proper wastewater treatment and prevent improper disposal. The final area of concern is the material considerations. It is in considering the material concerns of neodymium usage, such as the amount of the material flow and potential alternatives, that the realms of energy and environment collide. That is to say, if humanity can discover ways to reduce the usage of neodymium as a material, the related environmental and energy concerns will also naturally be addressed, by means of the reduced demand.

Response to Retrieval Solutions

Most of the solutions proposed to address concerns in the retrieval phase of neodymium require some sort of government involvement or oversight, and would thus vary in effectiveness from country to country. For example, the advances in energy saving mentioned were adopted primarily by European countries, where most citizens and companies are already fairly ecologically minded. Similarly, while strengthening regulations regarding wastewater in mining would be much easier in Europe, since European governments already devote quite a bit of effort to protecting the environment via such oversight, European mines are typically not the sites which require such directives. China, on the other hand, does require a great deal of improvement. Not only does 95% of neodymium extraction occur in China, but the country has also demonstrated issues with properly managing its wastewater and resulting toxic tailing ponds. Convincing the Chinese government to impose stricter regulations on the mining industry would likely require a great deal of time, effort, and global pressure. However, these companies could perhaps be convinced to implement energy-saving features if the initial cost was subsidized, since the end result would save on production costs.

windturbines

Solutions in Industry

The bottom line regarding industrial use of neodymium is that too many companies, products, and services rely on the material. In terms of energy, one helpful route would be that of researching new, more efficient ways of using neodymium in the products that currently do. The magnetic induction provided by neodymium magnets and the electricity it produces are subject to enormous losses, so there is certainly room for optimizations which would lessen the adverse impact of neodymium in the energy sector. Once looking through the lens of environmental concerns, another strategy emerges. Educating the public on the potential environmental risks of overusing neodymium, such as raising the price or poisoning the countrysides of the areas that over-mine it, might provide the consumer-based pressure necessary to help retard the ever-increasing demand for the material in the industrial space. Finally, the primary solution in the material sense would be to find alternatives, such electrically-induced magnets, which do not require rare earth elements.

Response to Industry Solutions

Industry is likely the area in which reducing the material, energy, and environmental impact of neodymium would be easiest. Companies have already begun to research alternatives to neodymium-based magnets, either to save money or because they fear not having any options should neodymium prices rise or should neodymium supplies run out. Consumers, likewise, have recently become more aware of potential environmental issues surrounding rare earth element usage, thanks to the online articles which have exposed the effects of the toxic tailing ponds arising in China.

73062924_ewaste1024

Solutions in Disposal

The majority of neodymium used in consumer products ends up being thrown away. In fact, it is estimated that only around 1% of neodymium ends up being recycled. In terms of energy, this disappointing statistic means that significant energy reductions which could be achieved through reusing recycled neodymium are not being realized. Researching efficient ways to extract neodymium from discarded products and recycle the material for reuse would no doubt lessen the energy demands of the material, especially since it is the mining and extraction phases which are so intensive. Again, education focused in the environmental risks of the increasing demand of neodymium might motivate consumers to actually recycle their electronics, something which people are usually hesitant to do.

Response to Disposal Solutions

In the United States, implementing recycling, disposal, or other post-use strategies for the material flow of neodymium would likely be difficult. Similar to extraction in China, this is an unfortunate reality, since the United States is the country where improvement in product recycling would have the greatest impact, due to the amount of per capita waste the country generates. While Americans could be convinced that recycling their headphones, speakers, earbuds, and laptops is the environmentally friendly thing to do, it is incredibly more difficult to actually convince an American consumer to take that course of action themselves. This opposition to taking effort to help the environment likely arises from the lack of recycling options in the United States, which in turn makes recycling their electronics very inconvenient. As such, response to attempts to increase recycling rates for neodymium products would likely be disappointing unless the American government takes action to encourage and subsidize the development of proper recycling facilities. While other countries would obviously also benefit from such a solution, implementing it successfully in the United States would have a great impact.

Conclusion

While rare earth elements like neodymium are very useful, current reliance on neodymium magnets could prove to be hazardous or detrimental if the use, impact, and disposal of the material is not soon reduced. Through a combination of spreading awareness, encouraging research into alternatives, incentivization of more efficient usage, and regulation of the current extraction and production, governments, countries, companies, and consumers could work together to help prevent the risks associated with over-dependence on neodymium and other rare earth elements.

Works Cited

This post is a summary, recap, and final conclusion post made using the research from each of the four preceding posts. As such, the information used in this post is largely derived from the sources cited in those previous ones. For links to the materials that were used or referenced, please see the Works Cited sections of those posts:

Introduction to Neodymium Usage

The Material Flow of Neodymium

The Energy Demand of Neodymium

The Impact of Neodymium

Additional referenced materials include:

http://www.energydigital.com/renewable-energy/how-reduce-energy-consumption-mining

https://www.epa.gov/npdes/industrial-wastewater

The Impact of Neodymium

Introduction

Due to the large scale of global neodymium use, the wide variety of its applications, and the material’s effectiveness in those applications, it is difficult to deny that neodymium currently has a considerable impact on the world and the environment. In a similar vein, the exponentially-increasing yearly demand of neodymium coupled with the developments being made in the areas of its use serve as convincing proof that the global impact of neodymium will only continue to grow. However, since the primary applications of neodymium, namely: modern speakers, computer memory, and electric generators, are all fairly recent developments, there is little historical data to aid in impact analysis. Similarly, the unavailability of figures regarding humanity’s current use of the rare earth mineral makes estimations of its current impact difficult. Finally, the uncertainty regarding whether neodymium demand will continue to grow exponentially and the possibility of future technological breakthroughs in the area of magnetics hinder attempts at predicting the material’s exact future use. Regardless, careful consideration of certain factors can help us gain better insight into the material’s current and future impact. In this post, we will consider the necessity of neodymium, estimate the impact of neodymium, analyze the biggest contributing factors to that impact, and identify solutions for reducing that impact either now or in the future.

Necessity Versus Convenience

The most important applications of neodymium use the material for its magnetic properties. While the material is also used in tinting glass and manufacturing lasers, it is much less necessary in these cases. As such, this post will focus on the magnetic properties and applications of neodymium. Permanent magnets, like the Nd-Fe-B magnet manufactured from neodymium, have magnetic fields which do not disappear, diminish, or dissipate under normal circumstances. Since they are very powerful and resistant to becoming demagnetized, they are the ideal material for applications which require magnetic fields. Neodymium is especially popular since the Nd-Fe-B magnets are extremely compact for their strength. In fact, Nd-Fe-B have the most magnetic strength per volume of any widely used, commercially available permanent magnet. That metric, measured in kJ / m3, BB00, or MGOe, is sometimes referred to as BHmax. The following chart is just one example which illustrates the incredible compactness of neodymium magnets, by showing the BHmax of various types of magnets over time. (The values increase over time for newer materials as manufacturing procedures improve.)

graph.png

So What if Neodymium Disappeared?

Humanity does not require neodymium, strictly speaking. Even neodymium magnets, with all their powerful compactness, are not necessary for mankind. However, it is hard to deny that the material is substantially ingrained in our society. To consider the extent of humanity’s global reliance on neodymium, it is helpful to consider what would occur if all neodymium suddenly disappeared, or at least was no longer available. To consider how the global population would react to this drastic change, we will visit the three biggest applications of neodymium magnets:

Hard drives

Neodymium magnets make up only 3% of the weight of a typical computer hard drive. However, this is in part due to neodymium’s incredible efficiency in terms of strength versus weight. Replacing neodymium magnets in computer hard drives would probably require the use of a different rare earth magnet, likely dysprosium. While dysprosium is very similar to neodymium, magnets made from the substance are usually weaker and less size-efficient. As such, switching to the use of dysprosium in hard drives would require larger magnets and thus increase the size of the storage devices. Since laptop manufacturers are currently competing to reduce device size, there would likely be industry resistance to this alternative. Perhaps a more reasonable alternative would be an industry shift to solid-state drives, or SSDs. The storage properties of solid-state drives come from enormous arrays of floating-gate transistors, meaning the technology uses small electrical circuits instead of magnets. Since SSDs are much faster than traditional hard drives, they are popular among consumers. Additionally, recent developments in the field have lead to larger, cheaper SSDs. Finally, even when considering global differences, it seems most manufacturers, regardless of location, are capable of switching to SSD-based products in a fairly short timeline, since most major computer manufacturers currently carry SSD products. Therefore, while the disappearance of neodymium would impact the world of computer storage devices, recent developments in alternatives like solid-state drives mean the field could likely manage without neodymium. 

Speakers

Neodymium magnets are popular in speakers, headphones, earbuds, and other sound-producing devices. The powerful compactness of neodymium permanent magnets allows smaller devices (earbuds) to be strong enough to enjoy and allows larger devices (concert speakers) to be lightweight enough to transport. However, manufactures have little reason to remain faithful to neodymium magnets over alternatives other than their efficiency, especially since the material costs more than many others. As such, plenty of speaker manufacturers use ferrite-based magnets for their products. While a sudden disappearance of neodymium would affect the weight and size of your earbuds, headphones, and concert speakers, those devices would still remain.

Electric Generators

The third major application of neodymium magnets, generators, is the area in which humanity’s reliance on the material is most concerning. Since electricity generation is prone to huge losses, it is vital that methods of generation be as efficient as possible. It is for this reason that neodymium magnets, being so compact and powerful, are so sought after in the generators used in wind turbines, nuclear power plants, hydroelectric plants, and electric vehicles. If neodymium were to disappear, any additional generators manufactured would have to be made from other magnetic materials. Alternatives would certainly be found, but the transition would likely take a long time. While German turbine company Enercon has developed a completely neodymium-free wind turbine which uses electromagnets instead of permanent ones, the development is as recent as 2011. Likewise, while researchers at the University of Minnesota believe they have made progress in using an iron nitride permanent magnets instead of  neodymium ones, their results were only published in 2014. Across the board, progress in finding neodymium alternatives for generators is so recent, that it would likely take decades to successfully integrate these solutions into newly made generators. To make matters worse, the countries involved in those examples, the United States and Germany, are likely the countries which would require the least time to transition to alternatives. Countries like Brazil, China, the Czech Republic, India, Mexico, and Thailand, would likely take much longer. As such, the world’s dependence on neodymium as a means of clean energy generation is perhaps the most concerning aspect of neodymium usage.

The Impact of Neodymium

The equation I = P x A x T (Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology) is popularly used to better understand the contributing factors of a material’s global impact. Specifically, it states that the impact of a material is approximately equal (or directly correlated, depending on the accuracy of the figures used,) to the population that uses it, multiplied by the amount that each person in that population uses, multiplied by any technological factors which may increase the efficiency of usage or decrease the extent of impact. For the impact of neodymium arising from consumer products, such as laptops, headphones, and electric cars, the IPAT equation can be applied at the user-level. Since it is difficult to estimate the amount of wind turbines that each person uses, the IPAT equation is better applied at the country-level when considering the impact of neodymium arising from generators and turbines.

Consumer Products

P: It is difficult to estimate how many people use laptops, headphones, and electric vehicles globally. However, InternetWorldStats.com estimates that as of May, 2017, 3.73 billion people use the internet. While this figure is not a perfect starting place, we will use it to estimate impact.

A: Of the 3.73 billion people cited, we will estimate that, one average, each person uses 1/2 of a computer. That is to say, each computer is shared by 2 people on average. This estimate accounts for families in countries like Mexico and India which might share one family computer as well as affluent consumers in the United States who own two or three laptop and/or desktop computers. With global sales of about 300 million per year, and assuming that people keep the same pair of headphones for about two years on average, we will also assume that those 3.73 billion people each use ⅙ of a pair of headphones.

T: Unfortunately, technological developments have not done much in the area of reducing the environmental impact of neodymium production, which still requires energy-intensive manufacturing and extremely impactful mining operations.

Considering the product of P, A, and T for consumer products seems to result in a considerable impact of neodymium on the environment. However, a qualifier must be added to the Affluence factor of the equation: there is very little neodymium in laptops and headphones, mainly because the material is so powerful in small amounts. However, the equation can be reapplied for two more concerning applications:

Electric Vehicles

P: Statistica.com estimates that there were 1.3 million electric vehicles (EVs) in use globally in the year 2016. To better relate to the IPAT equation, we will refer to this figure at 1.3 million electric car owners.

A: Each EV owner is responsible for the 2.2 pounds of neodymium used in the vehicle.

T: As detailed in the previous blog post on neodymium’s energy demand, technological developments have not yet led to much efficiency in the energy demand of manufacturing neodymium permanent magnets. The intensive mining process, especially, involves large amounts of energy, water, and pollution. In the previous blog post, it was estimated that each pound of neodymium requires 520 MJ per pound.

Multiplying the P, A, and T factors results in 1.3 million persons each responsible for over 1100 MJ of energy required to manufacture the neodymium magnets used in their vehicles, for a total of 413 GWh of energy (units changed to keep the number readable).

Generators

Applying the IPAT equation to electric generators and turbines is more difficult, but also the most important application of the equation for neodymium. In absence of hard numbers, we will instead identify the key concerns for each factor.

P: Most developed nations use electric generators, especially the larger nations which have recently made efforts to move to greener sources of energy.

A: The nations which do use electric generators are building plenty of wind turbines (U.S.), nuclear power plants (France), and hydroelectric plants (Albania). Each of these applications, in turn, requires a great deal of neodymium.

T: The production process of neodymium, as mentioned before, is incredibly inefficient.

Where is the Greatest Concern?

In each of the above applications, the T factor of the IPAT equation has caused the most concern. As detailed in the previous blog, neodymium extraction and production current requires a lot of energy, and technological advances have yet to reach the industry. Not only is humanity’s enormous demand of neodymium unprecedented, meaning that technology has had little time to optimize the manufacturing process, but the bulk of the extraction and production (~95%) occurs in China, where rules, regulations, and environmental concerns often come second to quantity and profit.

Reducing the Impact

To reduce the global environmental impact of neodymium, it is best to focus on the greatest contributing factors to that impact. The neodymium-using products which have the greatest contribution to the material’s impact are the generators, turbines, and electric vehicles made from Nd-Fe-B permanent magnets. Unfortunately, reducing the number of wind turbines and electric vehicles used globally would defeat the purpose, since those technologies are crucial in reducing mankind’s carbon footprint. Therefore, the best way to reduce the impact of neodymium and its products would be to improve the T factor of the IPAT equation. Specifically, efforts must be directed towards reducing the energy intensity of manufacturing neodymium products by developing new methods and technologies to increase the efficiency of production. Again, it is necessary to identify which stages most need improvement. From the energy derivations in the previous blog post, we can see that the mining and transportation stages are the most energy intensive. Since transportation efficiency is not something unique to neodymium production, and since transportation efficiency is complicated by a host of other interdependent factors, it is makes the most sense to focus then on the energy associated with mining neodymium ores. Finally, since the overwhelming majority of neodymium ore mining occurs in China, it makes the most sense to focus efforts there. While reducing the energy needed for extracting neodymium ores at Chinese mining sites sounds straightforward enough, the industrial pushback and lack of government cooperation which one would face would make such a solution very difficult to implement. Additionally, as neodymium sources are further extracted, the mines which yield those ores will only grow deeper, requiring even more energy for retrieval. As such, while the proposed solution would be difficult, it will only grow more necessary as time goes on.

In summary, a large amount of neodymium is used globally by consumers and companies alike. The applications of neodymium either require little material, or are presently necessary for green energy technologies. Therefore, reducing the environmental and energy impact of neodymium as a material would be most effectively accomplished by targeting the mining and extraction of neodymium ore. Finally, implementing better regulations and more environmentally friendly practices in these Chinese mines would take enormous effort and support.

Works Cited

http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2016/finalwebsite/solutions/alttechnology.html

http://sciencing.com/properties-permanent-magnets-6136959.html

http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/Solids/magperm.html

http://www.duramag.com/techtalk/tech-briefs/what-is-maximum-energy-product-bhmax-and-how-does-it-correspond-to-magnet-grade/

http://www.arnoldmagnetics.com/en-us/Products/Neodymium-Magnets

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28161335

Rare earth magnets: not all new turbines are using them

http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

http://license.umn.edu/technologies/20120016_iron-nitride-permanent-magnet-alternative-to-rare-earth-and-neodymium-magnets

https://www.statista.com/statistics/327000/worldwide-sales-headphones-headsets/

https://www.statista.com/statistics/270603/worldwide-number-of-hybrid-and-electric-vehicles-since-2009/

http://www.popsci.com/cars/article/2009-09/your-prius-hogging-all-rare-metals

http://www.worldatlas.com/articles/top-10-countries-for-hydroelectricity-utilization.html

http://www.firstresearch.com/Industry-Research/Motor-and-Generator-Manufacturing.html

The Energy Demand of Neodymium

Introduction and Motivation

Throughout all stages of its life cycle, from its extraction from the earth, to its use in consumer products, neodymium and energy usage are closed tied. The mining of neodymium ores requires energy to run the machines, the separation of the ore requires water, heat, and plenty of power, and the magnetization of neodymium magnets requires incredibly powerful magnetic fields. However, neodymium as a material does not solely relate to energy consumption. Neodymium magnets are used in electric generators, like the kind required by wind turbines, to generate electricity from sources like water, wind, or steam. Other products made from neodymium, like speakers and laptops, encourage consumers to consume power, while others still, like the batteries found in hybrid and electric vehicles, help environmentally-minded consumers conserve power. By following the flow of neodymium from its extraction to its use or disposal, we can try to determine the overall impact that neodymium has on global energy consumption.

Extraction and Production

Hoping to better understand the energy implications of rare earth elements, a group of researchers from the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) conducted an extensive review of  the mining, mineralogy, uses, sustainability, and environmental impact of rare earths. Unfortunately, the study derives many of its estimates from the process of mining and producing neodymium in Australia, since those figures were most accessible. However, when conducting their life cycle assessment, the authors attempted to use figures relating to China’s rare earth element production, since the country represents the overwhelming majority of neodymium supply. As a result, the authors occasionally had to make assumptions, use estimation, or work with whatever limited figures were available. Citing a case study by the Swiss Ecoinvent database, the authors assumed a rare earth oxide ore concentration of 6%. To analyze the energy impacts of extracting neodymium from this ore, the authors then determined the boundary of their assessment. This boundary included “the mining, concentration of REE oxides, and separation of neodymium oxide” and the process for energy estimation included “material and energy inputs, emissions and land use for the mining and concentration of bastnäsite ore with a rare earth oxide concentration of 6%”, by approximating infrastructure and land use as equal to that of iron ore mining. Finally, the energy assessment of neodymium’s production stage included roasting and cracking of the rare earth element concentrate with acid in a 500° C rotary kiln, and solvent extraction for the separation of rare earth oxides. Under these assumptions, the CSIRO study estimated the energy requirement of neodymium extraction and production to be 743 MJ/kg. Using the neodymium demand figures from my previous blog on neodymium flow results in the following yearly energy demands for neodymium extraction and production:

energy
The scientific notation makes it difficult to appreciate the enormity of the results of these calculations. For comparison, consider that the third result, the projected energy requirement for the neodymium demand of 2050, equates to the energy stored in almost 50 megatons of TNT.

Manufacture and Processing

After neodymium metal is produced, it must be shaped into generic forms for the market. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to estimate the energy requirements of this process. However, we can use the energy requirements of rolling and coating steel to approximate the energy requirements of forming and coating neodymium. This step of the assessment is obviously less than ideal, but will have to suffice. According to the authors of Sustainable Materials: With Both Eyes Open, the global, yearly production of steel is 1040 Mt, the yearly energy cost to forming into stock products for market is 0.2 EJ, and the yearly energy cost to coat the steel with zinc is 0.6 EJ. This means steel requires .769 MJ/kg to form and coat. We’ll use this same figure for neodymium manufacture and processing, since neodymium magnets require a similar forming and coating process. After being shaped, however, neodymium magnets must be magnetized. This process involves subjecting the metal to extremely powerful magnetic fields. Estimating the energy cost of this process, thankfully, is rather simple. Accounting for losses due to heat, the energy required to magnetize a neodymium Nd-Fe-B magnet (the most common type) is approximately equal to twice the energy the magnet stores. The difficult part of this calculation is determining the energy stored in such a magnet. This can be accomplished by finding the area under the typical Nd-Fe-B magnet’s B-H curve, which is a graph of the magnet’s magnetic flux density (B) versus its auxiliary magnetic field (H).

magnrg07

Finding the area under the curve highlighted in red in the above neodymium B-H graph, and converting from meters cubed to kilograms by using the density of neodymium magnets yields a resulting 86.9 J/kg. Doubling this figure to account for heat loss, as mentioned before, results in an energy requirement of 173.8 J/kg to magnetize permanent neodymium magnets.

Interestingly enough, the 173.8 J/kg required to magnetize neodymium magnets is dwarfed by the .769 MJ/kg required to shape and coat the magnets, which is in turn dwarfed by the 743 MJ/kg required to mine, extract, and process the rare earth element itself. We’ll sum these three figures and round up a tad (to account for miscellaneous expenses) to arrive at an estimate of 745 MJ/kg required to create market-ready neodymium magnets.

Transportation and Shipment

Since the life cycle of neodymium magnets does not end in the factory, neither will our assessment of the energy costs. After neodymium magnets are properly shaped, coated, and magnetized, they must be transported and shipped. While previous stages of this energy assessment have been difficult to accurately measure due to scale, uncertainty, estimation, or unavailability of data, transportation is probably the most concerning. Worst still, the transportation energy costs for neodymium, unlike the energy costs of coating the material, are very significant. Since both the CSIRO and the With Both Eyes Open studies are silent when it comes to such an estimation, we will attempt to use a figure provided by Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue and Dr. Theo Notteboom, authors of The Geography of Transport Systems. Drs. Rodrigue and Notteboom estimate that transportation “typically accounts for about 25% of all the energy consumption of an economy.” While this is a terribly imprecise and unscientific estimation, it would be a sin to neglect the energy costs of shipping such a widely used metal. Worse still, this figure does not take into account the additional material costs of packaging neodymium magnets. As mentioned in the previous blog on neodymium flow, the shipment of permanent rare earth magnets, due to their incredible strength, requires exorbitant amounts of packaging. Otherwise, the magnets could damage their shipping containers, shipping vehicles, one another, or the individuals handling them. For our purposes, the most significant impact of this packaging is that it reduces the amount of neodymium that can be transported in a given shipment. Keeping this in mind, we’ll adjust the 25% figure to 35% instead.

Analysis

If transportation accounts for 35% of the energy costs of the neodymium industry, and the remaining 65% is the 745 MJ/kg we derived earlier, then neodymium extraction, production, manufacturing, processing, and shipment costs about 1146 MJ/kg.

energyfin.png
Calculating the overall energy cost associated with the global demand of neodymium results in the above estimates. That third figure, the projected energy associated with neodymium from extraction to shipment in 2050, is now equivalent to almost 75 megatons of TNT. However, the impact of neodymium on energy consumption might not necessarily stop once the magnets are done being shipped. Certainly the abundance of consumer electronics like smartphones, laptops, headphones, and speakers, all of which require neodymium magnets, helps contribute to the amount of energy consumed by consumers globally. While we won’t attempt to estimate this contribution, since it is rooted in whether humans would have used that energy anyways, it is definitely worth considering.

Also worth considering is the positive impact that neodymium has on energy usage. Specifically, neodymium is used in generators. When neodymium magnets are rotated around a conductive metal, the magnetic field induces an electric current. As such, materials with strong magnetic properties, like neodymium, allow for incredibly useful means of converting the forces around us into energy. In fact, most forms of electricity generation, including hydro and wind, require strong magnets inside a generator. Even nuclear power and coal, which reside on opposite ends of the spectrum of CO2 emissions, revolve around the heating of water into steam, which in turn drives turbines comprised of rare earth elements like neodymium. Should neodymium been seen in a gentler light because it helps us generate energy from greener sources? Probably. Should neodymium as a material be penalized for helping the coal power industry? Probably not, but who’s to say? Adding further complexity to the issue, one must remember that the neodymium used to build those wind turbines and nuclear power plants required significant amounts of energy to process. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences, a 2 megawatt wind turbine requires 800 pounds of neodymium. At 1146 MJ/kg, 800 pounds of neodymium costs 416 GJ. That very 2 MW wind turbine would have to operate for 2.4 days before it generates that much energy, meaning every wind turbine must spend its first 2.4 days of operation trying to offset the energy required to process its neodymium!

Issues and the Plan for the Future

In summary, using data where it is available and estimation where it is not, we can come to a rough approximation of the energy costs of neodymium production. However, as neodymium magnets enter the market, it becomes difficult to draw the lines and decide what results of neodymium usage should also be considered. A sudden halt in neodymium supply would result in a sharp drop in electronics production, which in turn would likely reduce the world’s energy usage. However, that halt would also cause a sharp drop in the production of turbines to be used in wind, hydro, and nuclear power generation. As such, the problem to be solved here is not “neodymium” itself, nor the amount of the material that is extracted and used. Instead, improving the environmental impacts associated with neodymium would require changing the way we use the material. Developing more efficient turbines and generators, with higher inductive coupling coefficients (for inducing electricity) and less friction, reducing the power draw of the electronic devices that use neodymium magnets, and improving the mining process of neodymium are all possibilities. As a environmentally minded citizen, lawmaker, or government leader, then, what should we do to improve the energy costs associated with this incredible material? Such a plan would require:

  • Incentivizing the mining industry to develop less energy-intensive processes.
  • Regulating the mining industry to ensure environmentally sound practices.
  • Pushing for cleaner fuel for shipping options, by land, sea, and air.
  • Encouraging technology makers to create low-power products.
  • Funding research into more efficient generators, turbines, and magnet usage.

Unfortunately, the planks of this plan are large enough to prevent any citizen, or even lawmaker, from ensuring they occur. However, with sufficient pressure from globally and environmentally minded citizens, and with sufficient action from their representatives, progress could definitely be made.

Works Cited

https://dextermag.com/resource-center/magnetization-demagnetization-faq#3

Haque, Hughes, Lim, and Vernon. “Rare Earth Elements: Overview of Mining, Mineralogy, Uses, Sustainability and Environmental Impact.” Resources. MDPI. 2014.

http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/analysis/big-winds-dirty-little-secret-rare-earth-minerals/

https://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch7en/conc7en/ch7c3en.html

http://www.coolmagnetman.com/magenergy.htm

http://www.withbotheyesopen.com/

 

The Material Flow of Neodymium

What’s Going on Here?

From hard drives and electric vehicles, to wind turbines and generators, a plethora of modern technologies rely on the incredible magnetic properties of rare earth elements like neodymium. This large demand has led to the establishment of a sizable global neodymium material flow. The life cycle of neodymium can be analyzed throughout its collection, processing, manufacturing, transportation, use, and eventual disposal to better understand the effects that neodymium as a material has on society, energy, and the environment. Due to uncertainty in metric choice, unavailability of data, and the large scale and distribution of neodymium extraction, it is difficult to come to any exact figures. However, through the use of data where it is available and estimation where it is not, we can come to reasonable conclusions regarding the effects of the global flow of neodymium.

How Much Do We Use?

Since Neodymium is so useful in the electronics and energy industries, the scale of its usage is quite large. The Materials Information System of the European Commission concluded that global collection of rare earth elements yielded 130,000 tonnes of metal in 2012. Since neodymium is not the only rare earth element currently extracted and used by humanity, neodymium extraction comprised only 21,000 tonnes, or 16%, of that figure. While this data only applies to global collection in 2012, the organization also estimated that neodymium demand would grow at a rate of 7% each year. Using this estimate, we can calculate approximate neodymium extraction figures for 2017, 2020, and 2050:

math

Accounting for significant figures, these calculations yield estimates of approximately 30,000, 36,000, and 270,000 tonnes for the years of 2017, 2020, and 2050, respectively. It is important to note, however, that these figures are only meaningfully accurate if two important assumptions hold true:

  1. Global demand of neodymium continues to grow at a rate of 7% each year.
  2. Global extraction of neodymium is able to keep up with the rate of demand.

Where Do We Get It?

Approximately 95% of global neodymium extraction occurs in China. The next biggest players in neodymium collection are Australia and the United States. Notable reserves have also been identified in South Africa, Canada, and North Korea. While the former two may become global contenders in the near future, the political implications surrounding North Korean trade make it unlikely that the country will soon enter the market.

Why Does Supply Matter?

The importance of the location of the world’s neodymium supply can be understood in the context of the following example:

Between 2010 and 2012 the Chinese government put strict export quotas on their rare earth minerals … The quotas reduced the output by nearly 60% compared to the 2008 total release of 34,156 tonnes. These quotas created a gap between demand and supply and large increases in the prices of the rare earths.” (Haque et al)

After global concerns were raised by bodies such as the United States, the European Union, Canada, and Japan, China eventually agreed to revert its restrictions. While the prices of rare earth elements such as neodymium eventually dropped back down, the dramatic surge in market price resulting from China’s actions shows just how much influence the country has on the global supply of neodymium. 

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Since neodymium is very abundant in the earth’s core, most experts believe that current reserves will not limit neodymium production in the foreseeable future. However, the actual extraction and processing of neodymium may not be able to keep up with the exponential growth in global demand. If demand surpasses the ability of countries to provide neodymium, another sharp increase in the price of neodymium, such as the one seen between 2010 and 2012, may occur. Such a price surge would likely decrease the viability of several types of technologies which rely on neodymium, including many clean-energy solutions.

Where Does It Go?

Neodymium is collected via the mining of monazite and bastnäsite ores, usually in open pit mines. The process of producing usable neodymium involves removing the unwanted earth (overburden), mining the ores, crushing and grinding, separation, extraction, concentration, and final processing. According to research conducted by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in 2014, the separation stage alone ends up requiring around 0.6 GJ of energy and 1 ML of water per tonne of rare earth ore produced. During the extraction and concentration stages, additional resources are required. Specifically, the rare earth ores are treated with concentrated sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, and ammonium bicarbonate. Unsurprisingly, this stage of the production is also energy intensive. The ores are roasted in 400 – 500 degrees Celsius temperatures, washed, and heated again. Finally, neodymium and other lighter metals are extracted via a process called molten salt electrolysis. Additionally, neodymium must also be shaped, magnetized, coated, and transported to the factories where it will be used in the making of various products. Transport is especially difficult, due to neodymium’s incredible magnetic properties. Since neodymium magnets are so powerful, careful precautions must be taken. As a result, shipping a neodymium magnet disc with a diameter of just 6 inches requires packaging it in almost 8 cubic feet of cardboard, Styrofoam, and plywood. It is difficult to estimate the intensive energy demands of heating, treating, magnetizing, and shipping neodymium. However, it is safe to say that the .6 GJ / tonne required for the separation stage of neodymium mining is only a minuscule fraction of the total energy required to manufacture industry-ready neodymium magnets.

How Is It Used?

After neodymium is extracted from the mined rare earth ores and shaped into convenient forms for shipping, it enters the consumer and industry space. Some neodymium enters the market in its pure form, to be used in dielectrics, glass coloring, catalysts, welding goggles, CRT displays, various alloys, rubber additives, capacitors, and lasers. However, the vast majority of the material is combined with iron and boron to create Nd2Fe14B permanent magnets. While permanent neodymium magnets are often cited as being necessary for the manufacturing of electric vehicles, they are also used to make starter motors, brake systems, seat adjusters, and car stereo speakers. In the electronics industry, neodymium magnets are used in speaker systems, headphones, vibration motors in smartphones, and most importantly, computer hard drives. However, the use of neodymium in wind turbines and electric vehicles is frequently stressed due to the immense amount of material required. The Institute for Energy Research and the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences estimate that a 2 megawatt wind turbine requires 800 pounds of neodymium. By contrast, Toyota’s Prius is estimated to use around 2 pounds of neodymium, but around 2 million units have been manufactured and sold.

Where Does It End Up?

The end-of-life destination of neodymium is particularly important for two reasons: neodymium which is recycled can help satisfy the global demand for the material and neodymium which is disposed of has environmental impacts. Unfortunately, current recycling rates for rare earth elements like neodymium are abysmal. For example, it is estimated that in 2013, only 1% of cell phones were recycled. Even worse, consumer headphones, earbuds, and hard drives are likely recycled at much lower rates. In 2014, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization estimated that neodymium reuse, recovery, and recycling manages to meet only 1% of the global demand for the material. The large majority of the metal, then, is disposed of in landfills or other dumps. Consumer electronics containing neodymium are shipped from countries which use them in massive quantities to the slums of Hong Kong, Ghana,  and India. Thankfully, however, neodymium carries nowhere near the health concerns of dangerous metals like mercury, lead, arsenic, and cadmium. However, the global flow of neodymium is not without its own health concerns. The waste water from the mining and separation of neodymium ore, when improperly disposed, accumulates into large and dangerous “tailing ponds”. Baotou, China, one of the world’s largest suppliers of neodymium and other rare earth metals, is home to perhaps the most famous example of such a “pond”. The toxic lake of Baotou, filled with black sludge as far as the eye can see, is the result of flooding the town’s farmland with the harmful byproducts of rare earth metal mining. Since tailing ponds are created by neodymium production, they are not direct results of neodymium disposal. However, since around 99% of neodymium is disposed of, rather than being recycled, mining sites like Baotou are met with immense pressure from global demand.

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What Does the Future Hold?

Finding an alternative to the use of neodymium for permanent magnets would help ease some of the world’s demand for the material. Such a reality is certainly not impossible. In fact, even engineers at Toyota have been researching ways to create electric cars without the use of rare earth metals. Likewise, discovering more energy efficient processes for extracting, treating, and magnetizing the metal would help reduce its energy demand. However, the biggest challenge facing the global material flow of neodymium is its poor recycling rate. Unfortunately, this is the area which has seen the least global attention. While researchers are looking into neodymium substitutes and better ways to harvest the metal, very little awareness has been raised about the benefits of recycling the material. While the world’s reserves of neodymium are vast, current extraction methods are energy intensive, often environmentally dangerous (as in the case of Baotou), controlled by certain countries (mainly China), and could potentially become economically unviable (as seen in the 2010-2012 price surge). If society wishes to continue using wind turbines, electric vehicles, hard drives, and speakers, it is going to need to do more than just find better ways to produce magnets and cars. Namely, policy makers and citizens of technologically developed countries must begin to raise awareness of the importance of recycling the luxury goods we have come to appreciate.

 

Works Cited

Materials Information System. “Neodymium.” European Commission SETIS. Apr 2016. https://setis.ec.europa.eu/mis/material/neodymium

Haque, Hughes, Lim, and Vernon. “Rare Earth Elements: Overview of Mining, Mineralogy, Uses, Sustainability and Environmental Impact.” Resources. MDPI. 2014.

http://license.umn.edu/technologies/20120016_iron-nitride-permanent-magnet-alternative-to-rare-earth-and-neodymium-magnets

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/physics/rare-earth-elements-in-cell-phones/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zO9nWgI_LY

http://www.baotou-rareearth.com/nd.html

http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/analysis/big-winds-dirty-little-secret-rare-earth-minerals/

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es501572z

http://www.inautonews.com/toyota-finds-way-to-avoid-using-rare-earth-metals-like-neodymium-and-dysprosium-in-hybrids

 

Introduction to Neodymium Usage

Introduction to Neodymium Usage

Background

     Humanity’s increasing usage of and dependence on technological advances has led to an impactful shift in the materials demanded in the global sphere. For example, Apple’s famous iPhone uses over 40 different elements (Compound Chem, 2014). Many of those elements, such as silver and gold, despite being thought of as primarily decorative, are incredibly important to the electronics industry. However, while electronics and new technologies have led to a huge increase in the demand for certain materials, the uses of some materials are still much better known than those of others. One particularly concerning case is that of neodymium, a rare earth element commonly used in the creation of permanent magnets. These magnets, in turn, make up our computer hard drives, MRI machines, loudspeakers, headphones, electric motors, electric vehicles, and electric generators. While neodymium is fairly common in the earth’s crust, humanity’s ever increasing demand for the element may prove to cause difficulties in just a few decades.

Usage

     Neodymium, like most rare earth metals, is primarily used in the creation of incredibly strong magnets. Neodymium, however, is especially known for its ability to form such magnets in very small sizes. The magnetic fields from these magnets can be used to induce electric current. This phenomenon is referred to as electromagnetic induction, and was discovered in 1831 by English scientist Michael Faraday. Since electromagnetic induction results in electric current, the magnets created from rare earth metals are used in a variety of applications. These uses can be roughly divided into three categories: electronic devices, electronic motors, and electronic generators. Many consumer electronic devices, such as your iPhone, your laptop computer, your headphones, your speakers, and even most of your cordless tools, use neodymium magnets to produce sound, store information, or power circuits. Electric motors, however, present an even more interesting application. After all, the magnets made from rare earth metals are required in the construction of electric vehicles, which are heavily sought after by countries hoping to reduce their dependence on oil, such as the United States. Electric generators present another very important application. Since generators require strong magnets to produce power, advocates of alternative forms of energy such as wind and hydro must first ensure that the supply of neodymium is large enough to provide adequate power.

Supply and Demand

     Since these various applications are so sought after, widely used, and important to consumers and countries alike, the global demand for neodymium is very steep. Additionally, this demand has only been growing. The Materials Information System of the European Commission found that global collection of rare earth elements to be 130,000 tonnes in 2012, with neodymium comprising 21,000 tonnes of that production. The organization further concluded that demand is expected to grow at a rate of approximately 7% per year (Materials Information System, 2016). The Department of Energy concluded that neodymium is critical in the short term for the development of wind turbines and electric vehicles, citing that an average wind turbine uses up to 500 kg of neodymium per kilowatt generated. The department found that neodymium faces a “significant risk of supply chain bottlenecks in the next two decades” and that it, as a result, serves as a “potential obstacle to the deployment of clean energy technologies.” (Department of Energy, 2011) The Department of Energy’s findings were supported by a 2011 study, which found that the increasing demand of rare earth elements has led to a sharp increase in price, noting the 800% increase in the market price for dysprosium specifically (Moss et al, 2011). While it is certainly reasonable to consider whether the common supply of neodymium will be able to keep up with global demand (and to consider when that common supply might run out,) most experts agree that the most pressing issue is the risk of global demand driving the market price past the point of feasible use of neodymium in many of its common applications (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2016).

Effects and Implications

     Surges in neodymium prices have prompted calls for a reduction in reliance on the material to ensure that certain technological and environmental goals can still be met. This problem is especially exacerbated in countries with a greater share of global demand or a lesser share of global production. For example, since the United States represents 15% of the total demand, with China representing over 95% of the global supply, the United States has particular incentive to find alternative materials to use for developing electrical vehicles, motors, and generators (Massachusettes Institute of Technology, 2016). In fact, the Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies (REACT) program was created by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a United States government agency which focuses on the development of advanced energy sources. REACT’s projects focus on identifying “low-cost and abundant replacement materials for rare earths while encouraging existing technologies to use them more efficiently.” (ARPA-E, 2011) A similar program in Japan, the 2009 “Strategy for Ensuring Stable Supplies of Rare Metals” also seeks to develop such alternative materials (Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, 2009). Some studies have made progress in identifying such possible alternatives, such as a currently ongoing research project at the University of Minnesota, which claims to have discovered a process for creating a “very strong permanent magnet that does not require any rare earth inputs” with “more than twice the maximum reported magnet energy product for a rare-earth neodymium magnet.” (University of Minnesota, 2016) However, since few concrete results have been reported in this area, the best course of action is likely focusing on reduction of current use and more efficient use of neodymium until alternatives can be properly studied and identified.

Collection and Production

     As researchers continue to search for alternatives to neodymium magnets and more efficient ways to use the ones we have already created, it is worthwhile to analyze the current process of collection and manufacturing of neodymium. The metal itself is first obtained through a lengthy mining process. Neodymium and other rare earth elements are primarily found in bastnäsite, a type of carbonate-fluoride mineral, and in monazite, a phosphate mineral (REEHandbook, 2013). As mentioned before, the vast majority of the world’s supply of these minerals is China, but some mining is also done in the United States and South Africa. These minerals are drilled and blasted, loaded into trucks, and then brought to mills for processing. At the mills, the minerals are crushed and separated via flotation. Since rare earth magnets require other metals, the extracted rare earth metals are melted with iron and boron (Arnold Magnetic Technologies). Next, the resulting alloy is pressed, shaped, and magnetized (Rare-Earth Magnetics, 2011). The magnetization process involves subjecting the metallic discs to extremely powerful magnetic fields, which cause the particles in the discs to reorient and create a directed magnetic field (Arnold Magnetic Technologies). Finally, since most of the resulting products are still rough, and since neodymium is sensitive to harsh conditions, the magnets are coated, usually with nickel or copper. As such, the manufacturing and production of neodymium magnets requires: iron, boron, nickel, copper. However, it is clear to see that this process also requires a considerable amount of energy. The drilling, transport, separation, smelting, shaping, and magnetizing of the raw materials each require energy in various ways.

Closing Thoughts

     Rare earth metals are extremely important for global production of powerful magnets. Of these metals, neodymium is one of the most important and most used. The magnets that result from these materials allow humanity to develop incredible technological innovations. Some of these advances, such as wind turbines and electric vehicles, could even help the environment by reducing CO2 emissions. However, neodymium is not without its complications. Its complex collection and manufacturing process, coupled with the incredibly steep global demand, has led to price increases in the past few decades. If this increase in cost continues, neodymium magnets may pass the point of economic feasibility. Even if better mining techniques allow for cheaper production, humanity will likely eventually face a shortage of the material. As such, global citizens should take care to contribute towards recycling efforts, researchers should look for ways to more efficiently use the neodymium we are harvesting, and countries should encourage corporations to investigate alternative methods of feasibly producing the important products that currently use neodymium magnets.

Sources

Compound Chem. “The Chemical Elements of a Smartphone.” Compound Interest. Feb 2014. http://www.compoundchem.com/2014/02/19/the-chemical-elements-of-a-smartphone/

Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. “Announcement of ‘Strategy for Ensuring Stable Supplies of Rare Metals’.” 2009. http://www.meti.go.jp/english/press/data/20090728_01.html

U.S. Department of Energy. “Critical Materials Strategy.” Dec 2011. https://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/DOE_CMS2011_FINAL_Full.pdf

Univeristy of Minnesota. “Iron Nitride Permanent Magnets, Alternative to Rare Earth and Neodymium Magnets.” Office for Technology Commercialization. 2016. http://license.umn.edu/technologies/20120016_iron-nitride-permanent-magnet-alternative-to-rare-earth-and-neodymium-magnets

ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy). “REACT. Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies.” Sept 2011. https://arpa-e.energy.gov/?q=arpa-e-programs/react
Massachusettes Insititute of Technology. “Rare Earth Elements Supply and Demand.” Mission 2016: The Future of Strategic Natural Resources. 2016. http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2016/finalwebsite/problems/ree.html

Materials Information System. “Neodymium.” European Commission SETIS. Apr 2016. https://setis.ec.europa.eu/mis/material/neodymium

REEHandbook. “Neodymium.” ProEdge Media. 2013. http://www.reehandbook.com/neodymium.html

Arnold Magnetic Technologies. “Magnet Manufacturing Process.” http://www.arnoldmagnetics.com/en-us/Technical-Library/Magnet-Manufacturing-Process

Arnold Magnetic Technologies. “Magnetizing.” http://www.arnoldmagnetics.com/en-us/Capabilities/Magnet-Production-Fabrication/Magnetizing

Rare-Earth Magnetics. “Rare-Earth Magnet Manufacturing Process.” National Imports LLC. 2011. http://www.rareearth.org/magnets_manufacturing.htm

Photo Credit:

https://phys.org/news/2016-09-ornl-rare-earth-magnet-recycling.html