A Shortage of Rare Earth Magnets Could Mean Big Trouble for Alternative Energy Innovation

by Jenny Knodell, IQS Editor

The most precious and valuable elements on Earth are buried deep beneath the surface, just waiting to be found. While diamonds, gold and silver are the first that come to mind, lesser known, exotic elements like neodymium, a rare earth magnet, may be the most invaluable of all. It isn’t shiny or beautiful, but this silvery-grey magnet is expensive and highly sought after. Miners crawl deep into open pit mines, thousands of feet below the surface and appear with truckloads of the unimpressive looking chunks of metal. The raw element is shipped in large steel barrels to a manufacturing facility, where it is finely ground into powder and pressed into high temperature molds. Neodymium exhibits some extraordinary and unusual properties. When compounded with iron and boron, it creates a magnetic field up to 25 times more powerful than those made from standard ferrites. It has exceptional resistance to demagnetization, and very small volumes provide the best performance of any magnet out there.

Ten years ago, neodymium magnets weren’t exactly in high demand. They were used for physical lifting in metal manufacturing facilities and components in elevator motors. Today, they are becoming key elements in alternative energy solutions. These permanent magnets are used in hybrid and fully electric vehicles as electric motor components, as well as power generator parts in wind and tidal turbines. Unfortunately, these developing green technologies require neodymium to operate, and the demand is skyrocketing. But if neodymium is a newly-tapped resource, there must be an abundance of it, right? Well, maybe not—it seems we’re running out of rare earth magnets, and quickly.

Deep in Mongolia, there’s a mine called Bayan Obo, where 40% of all the world’s rare earth metals and magnets lie. No other country besides China can even get near it. In fact, China holds a staggering 97% of the global demand for these precious elements. A few years ago, they were selling for rock bottom price and exporting as much as possible. If a shortage were to occur, what would happen? Rising prices and declining exports. With rare earth exports reduced by 1/3 last year and neodymium’s price rising 4 times since 2003, all signs are pointing to a shortage. While China is stockpiling mineral resources for their own use, the rest of the world is left plum out of luck. This is bad news, especially for car companies that are focusing harder on hybrid and electric cars.

Bayan Obo Mine.

While the European Union has slowly started to address the shortage with plans to thwart China’s stronghold on rare earths, some wonder if deposits of precious metals and magnets exist other places. There are in fact large amounts of rare earth elements that exist in the United States and Canada. However, China is, as of now, the only country whose government financially supports the mining and refining industries enough to tap and process elements like neodymium. Perhaps it’s time for the United States to invest in rare earth element mining, so that if and when China stops exporting altogether, a future supply is secure and alternative energy innovation can continue to develop.

Photo courtesy of Master Magnets, Inc.
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