At the same time, Hadjipanayis is researching whether more widely available rare earths could serve as substitutes or whether powerful magnets could be made that don't employ any rare earth elements, such as iron cobalt alloys. "Anything that comes out, we'll take," he says of the hunt for an alternative to neodymium, although the only known alloy as strong as rare earths is composed of iron and platinum, which is too expensive to compete commercially. "By the time you find something, it takes five to 10 years to make it commercially. I don't see anything for the next 15 to 20 years that is rare earth–free."
And that means the material challenge posed by rare earths won't be solved anytime soon, particularly as more wind farms cover the land, compact fluorescent lightbulbs and light-emitting diodes proliferate, and greater numbers of hybrid or electric vehicles hit the road. "There are some materials crises, like worldwide demand for chromium, that are easily solved—we just stopped putting chromium on cars," King notes. "This one is not so easy to solve."