Magnetics Business & Technology - Winter 2012 - (Page 22)

RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT A Long-term View of Critical Materials: From Coal to Ytterbium Berkeley Lab scientists take a multidisciplinary approach to be- began to fall. coming more resilient to current and future materials shortages. During the Industrial Revolution, England was in control of much When Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist Frances of the supply and price of coal. Worried about supplies eventually Houle considers the national alarm that has sounded over the short- running out, French scientists began tinkering with solar energy. Auage of rare earth materials-critical ingredients in a wide range of guste Mouchout designed a motor powered by solar energy, impressclean-energy and medical technologies, she tends not to panic. ing Napoleon III enough to receive funding from the monarch and “A recent Congressional Research be sent to Algeria to develop a solarService report shows that things are powered steam engine. However, after evolving fast. The current situation is many years of work, France’s relations temporary,” she said. “It will sort itself with England improved and the price of out over time.” coal dropped; that put an end to finanThat’s not to say there isn’t a probcial assistance to Mouchout and he was lem. Indeed, more than 90 percent of forced to abandon his project. the world’s rare earth elements are now Although the development of phomined in China, and worldwide demand tovoltaics was cut short, technological is anticipated to grow from 136,100 innovation has generally led the way metric tons in 2010 to 185,000 metric out of supply shortages, as was the tons in 2015, according to the June recase with ammonia, a key ingredient port by the Congressional Research Serof gunpowder and fertilizer. After Fritz vice. Rare earths are used in numerous Haber developed a method in 1909 to high-tech products, from laptops and fix nitrogen to produce ammonia on an wind turbines to hybrid cars and a range Rare earths and other critical materials are used in numerous industrial scale, the importance of guaof defense applications. clean energy and high-tech products, including wind turbines, no as a fertilizer source quickly diminHowever, at Berkeley Lab scientists hybrid cars, laptops and lasers. ished. Just a few decades earlier, guano believe that taking a long-term view is had been in such high demand that laws vital for addressing both the current shortage as well as avoiding had been passed and wars fought over control of guano sources. future shortages of materials that are crucial to US industry. “It’s The rare earth metals now in short supply, including dysprosium, important to remember that a critical material today wasn’t a criti- neodymium, europium and ytterbium, are used in applications such cal material 20 or 30 years ago,” said Houle, director of Strategic as magnets, batteries, fuel cells, hybrid engines, lasers and the color Initiatives in the Chemical Sciences Division. “Things that are now for TV and computer screens. Besides rare earths, the clean energy ‘earth abundant’ were in short supply in the 1980s due to problems in economy is reliant on a number of other elements facing limited Africa. Who knows what the next crisis is going to be in 30 years. To and fluctuating supplies, including lithium for batteries, rhenium for be more resilient to shortages should be the main goal.” metal alloys and several elements used in photovoltaics, such as cadDavid Shuh, a senior scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Chemical Scienc- mium, tellurium and gallium. es Division, notes that 30 years ago, the US was fretting over a very Indium is another metal that has seen wild fluctuations in price different set of critical materials. “Back then it was cobalt, nickel, and demand over the last few decades. It is used in LCDs and glass titanium, which are used to make magnets, alloys and materials for coatings. “Every time they introduce a new technology the price of indium goes nuts,” said Houle. “First it went up when laptops were high-performance applications such as in aerospace,” he said. A nearly 600-page report issued by the Department of Commerce introduced, then it stabilized, and then there was an enormous spike in 1981 titled “Conservation and Substitution Technology for Criti- when flat screen TVs were introduced.” cal Materials” also lists chromium, columbium (now known as nioCurrent research is underway to provide alternatives to indium bium) and tantalum as strategic materials with limited availability, tin oxide (ITO) with other materials systems, namely zinc oxide prized for their strength, surface stability and erosion resistance and and graphene. used in applications such as power plants, jet engines and aircraft. The long-term view needs to encompass the future as well as the The cobalt supply issue was later resolved by reducing the amount past. Materials need to be considered before a technology is even used to make steel as well as finding a substitute material for mag- designed. “A lot of things are going to change over the next 30 years net systems (dysprosium and NdFeB, an alloy with neodymium, two in terms of how we develop new technologies,” Houle said. “Before rare earths as it turned out). we didn’t worry at all about materials availability or environmental Going back even further in history, coal and wood were also once consequences. That’s what’s going to change.” critical materials. Millennia ago, cedar forests in the Middle East Houle cites the California Gold Rush as an example of doing were depleted to build palaces and temples and grand kingdoms. things without regard to the consequences. “The environmental imMore recently, the US experienced a wood crisis so acute that Presi- pacts were quite severe and persist to this day. I point to that as a dent Teddy Roosevelt warned of a potential “timber famine,” as for- lesson,” she said. “Now we understand that the Earth is finite, and we ests were cleared and wood was devoured to build railroads, rail cars, can’t just pick whatever off the shelf and build a technology without new homes and more. A famine was averted when railroad technol- understanding the consequences.” ogy improved and prices of substitutes, such as concrete and steel, 22 Magnetics Business & Technology • Winter 2012

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Magnetics Business & Technology - Winter 2012

Magnetics Business & Technology - Winter 2012
Editor's Choice
Permanent Magnet Industry Outlook - 2013
Magnet Materials and Their Properties
Magnets • Materials • Measurement
Application • Component Developments
Magnetics 2013: Conference Preview
Research & Development
2012 Resource Guide
Industry News
Advertising Index
Spontaneous Thoughts: Retired, Senile and Dead

Magnetics Business & Technology - Winter 2012