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, BB0/μ0, 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.)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.