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Good Earths and Rare Earths

April 20, 2011 - 6:17pm

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Good things spring from the good earth in spring. But scientists at the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory do that all year. That’s because Iowa’s Ames Lab is the center of the Department’s efforts on a special form of good earth, the rare earth elements.

These elements, unpronounceable-ium’s such as dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium, are essential to a wide range of green energy technologies ranging from windmills to electric vehicles. (According to “Mr. Rare Earth,” Ames Laboratory senior metallurgist Karl Gschneider Jr., one new-generation windmill capable of spinning up to three megawatts of electricity requires 1,500 lbs of neodymium.) They’re also used in mobile phones, laptops and military applications like night-vision goggles.

One of their primary uses is in permanent magnets, the strongest of which are made from a combination of neodymium, iron and boron. They have a much greater pull than the ones currently holding your refrigerator door shut tight. In fact, permanent magnets amount to over a $4 billion global industry.

Researchers at the Ames Laboratory recently discovered a new way to make those magnets in cheaper and greener fashion, one that reduces costs while reducing waste. And last month, Ames Lab signed a cooperative research and development agreement with Molycorp Inc., the Western hemisphere’s only producer of rare-earth oxides. The new effort will be focused on developing new ways to build better magnets, but it may also reenergize applied rare-earth research in the U.S. (For more information on building better magnets, see Nature’s “The Pull of Stronger Magnets,”)

That’s important, since the U.S. currently has a limited supply of rare earths, which are not so much rare as hard and expensive to get at. China holds about 36 percent of world’s rare-earth reserves, (compared to 13 percent in the U.S.), but it currently produces 95 percent of them.

The efforts at the Ames Lab are part of the Department’s broader efforts in rare earths, which were outlined in the Critical Materials Strategy report released last December. The approach consists of increasing globally diverse supplies, identifying appropriate substitutes and improving our capacity to recycle and reuse rare earths. It will be updated by the end of this year, so you might want to bookmark the page, or even better, put a note on your refrigerator.

Springtime is the season for green shoots from good soil. The same is true for the rare earth efforts at Ames. With a little bit of luck, and a whole lot of toil, they’ll see more green shoots of innovation springing out of the soil.

For more information on the Ames Lab and its efforts in rare earths, please go to: http://www.ameslab.gov/rare-earth-metals. And for more information on the Office of Science, go to: http://science.energy.gov/.

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