iPads, Priuses and Neodymium
A common frame for discussing differences in culture between the United States and China is short-term versus long-term thinking. The theory is that we worry primarily about the next quarter or next year while the Chinese are planning for the next decade and the next century. I am generally skeptical about these sorts of generalizations, but this blog fits the standard frame. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping, leader of China from 1978 until 1992, said “The Middle East has oil, we have rare earths . . . .” He knew what he was talking about and he was planning for the long haul.
If you look at the periodic table, there are two rows which are sliced out and shown in a separate place on the bottom of the page, sort of like Alaska and Hawaii on the a map of the United States. The top row, with 15 elements, is called the lanthanide series, and will have an arrow pointing to the column on the main table with scandium and yttrium with whom the lanthanides share similar atomic structure. Collectively these 17 elements are called the rare earth metals, and they are, as Deng Xiaoping understood some time ago, becoming very important in global events. (For more on the periodic table read my blog “The World’s Greatest Cheat Sheet.”)
To help you understand this, I’ll tell you the story of just one of the rare earth metals, neodymium, atomic symbol Nd. Nd was discovered in 1885 by Austrian Chemist Carl Auer von Welsbach. Not something you particularly need to know, but certainly the Austrians knew how to give their chemists cool names. Nd is noteworthy because it makes the world’s strongest known permanent magnets which are also surprisingly small and lightweight. In addition, adding Nd to glass can change its heat conduction properties in very useful ways (more on that below).
Small, lightweight magnets are vital to modern electrical generators, as well as a variety of other modern conveniences. As I explained in “Electricity Production 101”, electricity is normally produced by spinning a coil of wire near a magnet. The generator that charges the battery in a Toyota Prius uses a kilogram of Nd. In theory, the Prius could use an iron-based magnet, but it would be larger, heavier and have a weaker magnetic field, thereby cancelling out the advantages of the hybrid engine. Nd magnets also are used in electrical generators of the windmills springing up in wind farms all over the world. Here, like the Prius, using an iron-based battery is not really viable. Perhaps closer to the hearts of the readers of Chapelboro, Nd is also vital in the functioning of touch screens in your smart phones and iPads by allowing the glass to transmit heat from your finger.
Rare earth metals are produced like metals have been since the Iron Age. You find some ore with the metal you want and then use mechanical energy, heat, and chemical agents to extract and purify it. If the ore you have contains a high concentration of the metal you want, extracting and purifying it can be quick and inexpensive. If the concentration is low, the expense can be prohibitive.
If you read up on Nd a common phrase you will read is “Neodymium is really not that rare with amounts on earth approaching that of more common metals like cobalt or nickel”. This is a true statement, but it ignores the critical point made in the paragraph above. There are very few places in the world where you can mine an ore with an economically viable concentration of Nd, meaning it can be extracted easily and inexpensively.
At present, 97% of the world’s supply of Nd comes from China, so you can see what Mr. Xiaoping was crowing about. Given that Nd is used in Priuses and iPads, you should not be surprised to learn that 50% of the world’s Nd is consumed in Japan. This dynamic has already come into play in relations between these two countries. If China becomes slightly annoyed with Japan, they release a statement that they may need to reduce exports of Nd to support their domestic wind turbine industry. If China gets really upset, they simply threaten to stop exports altogether.
Consumption of Nd is already outpacing mining operations with predictable supply-and-demand behavior. The price of a kilogram of Nd rose from $19 per kilogram in June of 2010 to $129 per kilogram in June of 2011. This has set off a global Neodymium rush. Recently, the Japanese have announced the discovery of a promising deposit of Nd found on the sea floor near Hawaii. Forget deep-sea oil drilling; we’re on to deep-sea Neodymium mining. Activities in Afghanistan are being influenced by Nd as well, now that some potentially promising deposits of rare earth metals have been located there. So promising, in fact, the US military is flying teams of geologist into dangerous territories with armed escorts for surveying and sample-collection missions.
One of my main goals for writing this blog is to provide you with the information you need to more fully understand the important, but often unreported, scientific and technical back stories for events around the globe. After reading this blog, keep an eye out in the news for the words “rare earth,” “lanthanide,” and “neodymium.” If you do, you will learn what Deng Xiaoping knew long ago, these materials are valuable and useful and will be driving actions on the world stage in the coming years. So if you are thinking of buying a Prius, you might want to get on that.
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