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AS RARE AS… EARTH?

A PRESS RELEASE dated July 12, 2016, caught my eye: “Daido Steel and Honda Adopt World’s First Hybrid Vehicle Motor Magnet Free of Heavy Rare Earth Elements.” I’d agree, avoiding anything termed “heavy” and “rare” sounds like a Good Thing for an automaker. What’s more, I recall an international trade squabble seven years ago involving control of the world market for rare earth elements.

Can there be international intrigue lurking in this technical press release?

This called for a bit of digging, research-wise, not mining-wise. Here are some tidbits gleaned, which show an interestingly nuanced tale that ultimately speaks well for technology.

Fifteen of the 17 rare earth elements reside in a lower row of the Periodic Table. The lanthanides, from left to right, include lanthanum La to lutetium Lu; included by virtue of geologic proximity and other properties are yttrium Y and scandium Sc above them.

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Image from Geology.com.

These are split into two groups: light rare earth elements, LREEs, and heavy rare earth elements, HREEs. The HREEs, aka the yttrium group, are generally heavier, duh, but this isn’t really the point. More critically, they possess similar chemical properties and tend to be found together in nature.

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Rare earth oxide ores. This, other images and details from mining-technology.com.

Rare earths are neither earths (chemically, they’re metals), nor are they particularly rare. Cerium, for example, is the Earth’s 25th most abundant element, about as common as copper. Others are no rarer than tin or lead. Gold is more rare than neodymium. However, the rare earths tend to be found in ores peculiarly situated around the world.

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Sources of rare earth ores.

Among these locales are a quarry in Ytterby, Sweden; the Mountain Pass Mine, just off Interstate 15 in San Bernardino County, California; the Mount Weld Central Lanthanide Deposit in Western Australia; and the Bayan Obo Deposits in Inner Mongolia.

Four rare earth elements owe their names to Ytterby, Sweden: yttrium, erbium, terbium and ytterbium. Holmium, named for Stockholm; thulium, named for Thule; gadolinium, honoring Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin; and scandium also trace their discovery to this same quarry.

Molycorp’s Mountain Pass mine has been an on-again, off-again venture. The only rare earth mine in the U.S., it filed for bankruptcy in June 2015 after active mining recommenced there in December 2010.

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Mountain Pass Mine, about 215 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

These economic contretemps were related to actions at the world’s largest source of rare earths, the Bayan Obo deposits in Inner Mongolia. Before the advent of wind farms, hybrid cars, smart phones and the like, rare earths had only modest worldwide demand. Being what mining-technology.com called “brilliantly prescient” in the 1980s, China developed its Bayan Obo resources to the point that, today, 70 percent of the world’s rare earths come from this single mining facility.

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Bayan Obo, a satellite view, artificially colored.

In 2009 and 2010, China put export quotas on rare earths. Also, traceable to a long-standing territorial dispute, China reportedly cut off Japan’s supplies of the materials, crucial to the latter’s electronic and automotive businesses. The U.S., European Union and Japan complained to the World Trade Organization.

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Rare earth production.

China countered with arguments that its quotas were a matter of environmental protection and conservation: Extraction and processing of rare earths are particularly toxic and energy-intensive.

The WTO didn’t buy this. In summer 2014, it ruled that the export quotas “were designed to achieve industrial policy goals rather than conservation.” In response, China lifted the export quotas in early 2015. This, in turn, gave it domination of the rare earths market and pressured its few competitors.

HondaDaidoLogos

Which brings matters to Honda’s recent announcement. Automakers are averse to supplier unknowns: shortages, vagaries of price and the like. Even before the Chinese quota hassle, it’s likely that Honda executives directed its researchers to figure out a way to minimize use of these price-sensitive materials. And, indeed, this is what they’ve accomplished.

The new Honda Freed (its home-market Fit) Sport Hybrid i-DCD, as in intelligent dual clutch drive, features advanced neodymium magnets free of heavy rare earths.

Neodymium magnets offer the highest magnetic force obtainable in current technology. They’re crucial to motor efficiency of hybrids and electric cars. Hitherto, heavy rare earths dysprosium or terbium have been incorporated to give these neodymium magnets their necessary resistance to high temperature.

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Honda hybrid motor rotor with advanced neodymium magnets.

Honda and its partner Daido Steel devised the first practical neodymium magnet containing absolutely no heavy rare earths. The process uses hot deformation as opposed to conventional sintering. Hot deformation enhances temperature resistance by promoting alignment of nano-scale crystals in a grain structure ten times smaller than that produced through sintering.

The Honda press release clothes international intrigue in an innocuous phrase: “This technology will make it possible to avoid resource-related risks and diversify channels of procurement.”

Kudos, Honda and Daido. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com

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