Geologists have found deposits in Australia, Canada, Mongolia, Vietnam and even Greenland, and efforts are also underway to begin mining the deposits in the legions of discarded electronics available today. "There is a lot of rare earth material out there in used products; extracting from that urban mine will be viable," argues King of Ames Lab, which also has scientists working on better extraction methods for, say, neodymium from ores or old generators. "Recycling is definitely going to be a big part of the solution to this problem."
But for the foreseeable future China will continue to dominate rare earth production—and it holds the world's largest reserves, nearly twice as much as its neighbors to the north and west in the Commonwealth of Independent States (an organization of former Soviet republics formed after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.) and three times as much as U.S. reserves. And China is the only producer of dysprosium—vital for the heat-resistant magnets favored by the U.S. military and hybrid car–makers.
The perils of that dominance became evident to the world this fall when China reportedly shut off rare earth supplies to car manufacturers and other users in Japan as a result of a diplomatic imbroglio. After all, by 2005, all U.S. manufacturers of the neodymium iron boron magnets—invented by General Motors researchers in the early 1980s—had shut down. But even before China flexed its market-dominating power a slew of scientific researchers had been investigating how to use less rare earths—or even none at all—by fabricating better magnetic materials.
Magnetism arises from the electrons orbiting the atomic nuclei of some elements. When atoms align in a certain fashion a strong magnetic field results. Magnetic elements like iron or neodymium typically arrange themselves this way, thus generating a permanent magnetic field.
But by tinkering with that alignment—spacing it out with other materials or embedding it in a lattice composite at the nanoscale (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter)—scientists can potentially exponentially increase the strength of these magnets: The stronger the magnet, the fewer of them you need. "There have been theories around for 15 years that if you had a very controlled nanostructured magnet, you could as much as double" its strength, GE's Iorio says. "If you can double the strength you can use a much smaller magnet and get the same performance—or have the same size and get much more performance." That also means GE could spend less on the metal materials; the company currently spends some $4 billion annually on the purchase of metals and alloys.
GE was awarded $2.2 million by DoE's ARPA–E program to develop bulk quantities of such nanocomposite magnets in a bid to cut by 80 percent the rare earth elements used. The challenge is to make such a tiny microstructure stable—and reproducible on a much larger, bulk scale. But, within two years, Iorio says, "we'll have a magnet big enough to sit in the palm of your hand. Something that's useful [to stick on] your refrigerator."
ARPA–E also gave $4.4 million in October 2009 to a group led by physicist George Hadjipanayis of the University of Delaware to create a nanostructured version of the neodymium iron boron magnet that eliminates the need for as much neodymium. The secret: mixing it with softer magnetic materials that remain magnetic only when exposed to a magnetic field. "Neodymium iron boron nanoparticles are difficult to make because they are very reactive," Hadjipanayis says, in addition to being hard to align within a given nanostructure. "It's very difficult to obtain an aligned magnetic material," he adds. "My challenge is to make larger amounts of these nanoparticles, make sure I protect them, and find a way to assemble them."