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