It’s like the plot of a science fiction movie: humans are destroying the Earth, opening huge scars in its crust, polluting the air and the ground as they mine and refine the key element essential to technological progress. One day, scientists studying an alien meteorite discover a unique metal that negates the need for all that digging and pollution. Best of all, the metal can be replicated in the lab using basic materials. The world is saved!
OK, we’ve beefed up the story a bit there. There are no aliens, for one thing (unless you know something we don’t). But the rest is true. Two groups of scientists—one at Northeastern University in Boston; another at the University of Cambridge in England – recently announced that they were able to produce a material in the laboratory that does not exist naturally on Earth. It has so far only been found in meteorites.
We spoke to Laura Henderson Lewis, one of the professors in the Northeast group, who told us that the material found in meteorites is a combination of two base metals, nickel and iron, that have cooled over millions of years as meteorites fly through space. . This process created a unique compound with special properties that make it ideal for use in high-end permanent magnets, an essential component of a wide range of advanced machinery, from electric vehicles to spacecraft turbines.
This compound is called tetrataenite, and it’s a big deal for scientists to find a way to make it in the lab. If synthetic tetrathanite works in industrial applications, it could make green energy technologies significantly cheaper. It could also disrupt the rare earth market, currently dominated by China, and cause a seismic shift in the industrial balance between China and the West.
Mundane but very rare
As all of our readers will no doubt remember from high school science classes, magnets are an essential component of any piece of machinery that runs on electricity: they are the tubes that convert electrical energy into mechanical motion.
Most magnets, such as the magnet on the battery-operated clock on your office wall, are fairly inexpensive and easy to make. Permanent magnets used in advanced machines must be able to withstand high pressures and temperatures for a long time. And to get these properties, they need a special ingredient: rare earth.
Rare earths are not so rare. They are elements that can be found all over the world. The hard part is getting them out. First, you need to dig them out of the ground. It’s hard enough. Then you need to separate them: they are usually combined with other elements or materials. Breaking down these compounds and purifying them to obtain crude elements is an expensive and messy business.
The United States used to be the leader in the world of rare earths, but in the 1980s, China found a large deposit of these elements within its borders. Jonathan Hykawy is president of Stormcrow Capital, an investment firm that tracks rare earth markets. He has a good story about this discovery.
“Several Chinese companies opened mines in Inner Mongolia, and they were iron ore mines, and they produced waste material that ended up in their waste piles,” says Hykawy. “The Japanese were buying a lot of this iron and they said, ‘Can we take a sample from the waste piles?’ And the Chinese said, “Of course, take what you want.” The Japanese came back a little later and said, “We’d like to buy the waste.” And the Chinese said, “Well, why not sell it to you? I mean, it’s a waste. What are we going to do with it?” It turned out that it is rich in rare earths.
The Chinese caught on pretty quickly and started extracting these rare elements themselves. They could do it much cheaper than anyone else because their labor costs were much lower and they were willing to put up with environmental costs that were no small amount. U.S. production soon ceased, Hykawy says, and China effectively took over the market. Today, China controls more than 71% of the world’s production volume and 87% of the processing capacity of rare earths.
Two of these rare earths, neodymium and praseodymium, are key components in the production of permanent magnets, meaning that China currently dominates the permanent magnet market, accounting for more than 80 percent of these high-end instruments. Ten years ago, this didn’t seem like a problem. China was a willing and cooperative trading partner, apparently not so dangerous that in 2004 the US actually outsourced the production of magnets used in the guidance systems for American cruise missiles and precision bombs to a Chinese company.
“We had USA made,” Laura Lewis said. “Magnaquench, a subsidiary of General Motors. It was in Anderson, Indiana, and it went wholesale to China. It was a short-term view of the economy; a profit up front, but then we lost opportunities down the road.”
Today, relations with China are more tense. As we move to a clean energy economy, the need for both rare earths and permanent magnets is increasing.
The US has realized that it is at a significant strategic disadvantage to China in this vital area for its economy and national security. It has restarted a defunct rare earth mine in California and is eyeing potential new mining sites in Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming. But it will take more than a decade to put these mines into operation.
A game changer
That’s why the discovery of synthetic tetrataenite is so exciting, says Jonathan Hykawy. The compound is so hard that manufacturers can make permanent magnets out of it for all but the most demanding machine parts. If this happens, the US could fill a large part of the magnet market and reduce its need for certain rare earths. And that would lead to major changes in America’s relationship with China. No longer will the United States be subject to a competitor for these essential materials or depend on them for certain parts essential to the production of vital technology.
However, there is a potential downside. Rare earths are not only used in the production of permanent magnets. They are used in fiber optics, radiation scanners, televisions, and personal electronics. Hykawy says that if a large part of the rare earth market disappears because of tetrathanite, the production of all these other important rare earths could be disrupted. Their production can become significantly more expensive, which can increase the cost of a number of consumer and industrial goods.
From a distance
Laura Lewis says it will be a long time before tetrataenite can disrupt any existing market. He says a lot of testing still needs to be done to see if laboratory tetrataenite is as durable and useful as space material. And even if it turns out to be that good, it will be “pedal to the metal” for five to eight years before anyone makes permanent magnets out of it.
Meanwhile, China’s rivals are working hard to source rare earths from their own sources. US invests in mines in Australia; Exploration continues in Malaysia, and the Japanese are investigating ways to extract elements from mud dug up from the seabed. Jonathan Hykawy says if countries are willing to invest in rare earth mining and tolerate the environmental impacts, there’s no reason why they can’t compete with China.
“If we were willing to pay enough to produce these things, you could overcome these problems and produce them in an environmentally responsible way,” he says. “It’s no worse than, say, aluminum mining and manufacturing.”