backtop


Print 22 comment(s) - last by JediJeb.. on Oct 28 at 5:32 PM

New process could help combat rare Earth resource shortage

Money and global conflict have long been the core drivers of innovation.

I. What is Old, is New Again

So with rare earth metal prices at an all time high, and U.S. buyers irked by the fact that rare earth metals are controlled by China, the pressure to find alternatives or to reuse existing stocks is extreme.

That backdrop has driven the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Ames Laboratory  -- a research institution tied to the Iowa State University -- to refine a process it developed in the 1990s, repurposing it for molten rare earth metal recycling.

The process looks to extract neodymium, which is one of the most commonly used rare earth metals.  Only 20,000 tons of neodymium is produced per year, while demand is around 22,350 tons [source].  The scarce resource is primarily used in powerful magnets that are used to regenerate power in hybrid electric vehicles or to generate power in wind turbines.

Neodymium wide
Slowly China came to dominate rare earth metal production, a realm once dominated by the U.S. (neodymium magnets pictured) [Image Source: Doug Kanter/Bloomberg]

Prices on neodymium have relaxed slightly, but still sit at around $150 USD/kg [source].  And a greater looming problem is that prospecting only estimates global reserves of the resource to be at around 8 million tons [source].

The original Ames Lab project in the 1990s merely looked to extract neodymium from neodymium-iron-boron magnet scrap, using liquid magnesium.  The idea was that the neodymium would strengthen the resulting alloy.  At the time rare earth prices were low, so this was the most attractive use of the scrap method.

Rare earth metals
Neodymium from Chinese-owned Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare-Earth Hi-Tech Co. factory in Baotou, Inner Mongol  [Image Source: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg]

But with rare earth prices soaring, Ames Lab researchers began to think about repurposing the method to extract the neodymium.  The crucial question was whether the resulting yields would retain the same attractive magnetic properties as the original magnets.

II. Molten Extraction

Lead researcher Ryan Ott worked with colleague Larry Jones, also of Ames Lab.  Professor Ott describes the process, commenting, "We start with sintered, uncoated magnets that contain three rare earths: neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium.  Then we break up the magnets in an automated mortar and pestle until the pieces are 2-4 millimeters long."

The magnet scraps go in a mesh screen box within a steel crucible and magnesium chunks are added.  Heated by radio waves, the magnesium in the vessel is melted, while the magnet scraps remain solid.  Magnesium has a relatively low melting point of 923 K, 650 °C (Neodymium's melting point is 1297 K, 1024 °C).

The magic is that the rare earths then diffuse out of the magnet scraps.  Professor Ott describes, "The iron and boron that made up the original magnet are left behind."

Rare earth extraction
The rare earth metals are extracted via diffusion into molten magnesium.
[Image Source: Ames Lab]

The magnesium + rare earths combination is cast into an ingot and cooled.  Finally, the magnesium is boiled off, leaving behind only the neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium in a smaller ingot of pure rare earths.

Early tests show the material properties of the extracted metals compare "favorably" with those of unprocessed materials.  The next step will be to refine the extraction process and demonstrate it on a large industrial scale.

Comments Professor Ott, "We’re continuing to identify the ideal processing conditions.  We want to help bridge the gap between the fundamental science and using this science in manufacturing.  And Ames Lab can process big enough amounts of material to show that our rare-earth recycling process works on a large scale."

The research is being funded by an agreement with the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT).  South Korea, like the U.S., is a top electronics manufacturer and uses a lot of rare earths, so the research should prove mutually beneficial.

It's possible similar molten magnesium extraction methods could be applied to other rare earth alloys to recycle them.  If the process could be perfected it could mean that the electronics, automotive, and green power industries could have a modest supply of rare earth metals for millennia to come.

Source: Ames Lab



Comments     Threshold


This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

RE: There is no rare earths shortage in the US
By boeush on 10/26/2012 1:33:37 PM , Rating: 5
I wish people would actually watch that video before they down-voted your post...

It really is a travesty, how systematically and foolishly US has cast aside and ignored the tremendous promise and efficiencies of Thorium power. Economically and technologically speaking, we are not just shooting ourselves in the foot, we're blowing our own heads off.

Aside from potential benefits of large-scale recovery of rare-earths from Thorium-laced mining tailings in sufficient quantities to more than satisfy the entire US demand (as described in the video), I've also seen mention of significant Thorium content in coal deposits, such that if coal were not burned directly (as it is now, releasing all that Thorium and other radioactive and heavy elements directly into the atmosphere) but instead Thorium were to be harvested from it, then that Thorium could be used to both generate energy and (as a byproduct of the waste heat) actually transform coal directly into liquid fuels or other industrially useful hydrocarbons via syngas synthesis -- thus also solving our oil dependency problem. Thorium molten salt reactors run hot enough to even enable direct harvesting (sequestration) of carbon from the atmosphere and converting it to liquid fuels -- thus potentially addressing the greenhouse problem via a carbon-neutral fuel cycle in the long term.

Thorium MSRs are such a panacea to so many of our simultaneous and looming problems, they almost sound too good to be true. I'm honestly still having a bit of trouble myself believing it's real, except all the science and facts I keep on reading about on the issue consistently convince me that it's no joke.


RE: There is no rare earths shortage in the US
By kattanna on 10/26/2012 1:38:57 PM , Rating: 1
quote:
thus potentially addressing the greenhouse problem via a carbon-neutral fuel cycle in the long term.


dont worry, you can count on an "environmental" group to stand in the way of that

sadly


RE: There is no rare earths shortage in the US
By boeush on 10/26/2012 1:52:03 PM , Rating: 5
Personally, I consider myself a strong environmentalist.

Compared to the environmental impacts, deferred costs, and sheer un-sustainability of the current crop of nuclear reactors, coal power plants, and oil extraction/refining industries, Thorium MSRs are the dream technology that must be pursued and deployed almost to the exclusion of all other energy priorities.

I'm all for distributed renewable energy generation, as well. But for baseload power, fuel production, other chemical synthesis tasks (such as fertilizer production, as mentioned in the video), Thorium molten salt reactors appear to be simply unbeatable. With Thorium, we appear to have thousands of years worth of clean energy capacity.

Any person or organization opposed to Thorium reactor research and deployment without objectively comparing the costs and benefits against the existing and projected alternatives, does not deserve the title of "environmentalist".


By kattanna on 10/26/2012 2:03:40 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Any person or organization opposed to Thorium reactor research and deployment without objectively comparing the costs and benefits against the existing and projected alternatives, does not deserve the title of "environmentalist".


could not agree more.

one other major benefit of using high temp reactors is desalination. done right.. we could have abundant power and water.. something we need very much.


RE: There is no rare earths shortage in the US
By Ringold on 10/26/2012 2:15:59 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Any person or organization opposed to Thorium reactor research and deployment without objectively comparing the costs and benefits against the existing and projected alternatives, does not deserve the title of "environmentalist".


And yet Green Peace and all major environmental groups do exactly that, who combine forces to dominate thinking on the left side of the political spectrum. The few people that know better don't have the political muscle to do the heavy lift for nuclear on their own.

Unfortunately, unless your fellow environmentalists reform themselves, you're right. We're shooting ourselves in the foot -- or in the head. You'd be doing a lot of good doing your bit to help with that, but I suspect the core leading figures on the environmental scene have a strong anti-human element that think our existence is a plague that they have to try to shrink as much as possible, so ultimately..well.. good luck. You can't change the mind of people that know you're right but can't tolerate it exactly because it IS such a good technology.

Remember natural gas? When it was still scarce, expensive and hard to extract, they called it the bridge fuel to a low-carbon future. Now that we've proven we can produce vast quantities in a cheap way, it's just yet another fossil fuel anti-christ.


RE: There is no rare earths shortage in the US
By corduroygt on 10/26/2012 4:11:21 PM , Rating: 3
Well those folks are an embarrassment to us, just like folks on the other side who defend slavery and creationism are an embarrassment to you :)


RE: There is no rare earths shortage in the US
By Ringold on 10/27/2012 1:14:56 AM , Rating: 3
Yet those people we actively try to contain, and those aren't the people at the helm of the party at any level, nor in outside supporting organizations, such as the Heritage Foundation. They do whacky stuff on city councils, some times a state level, if there's just a ton of them, but its relatively rare.

By contrast, you say those folks are an embarrassment, but they absolutely dominate in Europe (note Germany's total retreat from nuclear), and here in the US I'd say Pelosi and Reid are part and parcel of them, as is Obama; note his lack of actually opening federal lands to natural gas (or oil) development. Note the political hang-ups for Keystone, to appease that hard-left environmental extremist element. We throw our crazies the occasional bone, you guys make them President and run primaries and run out of office guys like Lieberman.

So my statement stands. You guys, if you truly think they're an embarrassment, need to get them in line and stop putting them at the top of your parties power structure. I think the left has done an outstanding job in terms of marketing; they've made the Republicans out to be the ones to of shifted on the political scale, to the right, when I really think it's you guys that've been yanked hard to the left since Vietnam. Bush shows you've even sucked in Republicans to the big-government valhalla. Inch back to the middle, and America can get back to business.


RE: There is no rare earths shortage in the US
By corduroygt on 10/27/2012 1:39:07 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
So my statement stands. You guys, if you truly think they're an embarrassment, need to get them in line and stop putting them at the top of your parties power structure.

This coming from the party whose congressmen and governors think that slavery was a blessing in disguise to blacks? or where Santorum and his 16th century social ideas narrowly lost to Romney in the primaries? Whose presidential candidate is still running with anti-Abortion and anti-Gay Marriage platform? Seriously?

It's just as bad over there, get over yourself and stop those crazies.


By Ringold on 10/27/2012 5:05:40 PM , Rating: 2
Does Rick Santorum operate anywhere near the top of the party? No. Is he even still in office? No. Was he even popular with the rank and file? No, Newt Gingrich probably had the most excitement amongst rank and file party activists.

As for Romney, he had a hard time getting the religious vote exactly because nobody believes in our party what you're saying, and in a different post you'd probably say the same thing if you were on a slightly different position in an argument, 'cause all you do is troll.

Heck, I remember the tea party even endorsing a gay sheriff, and if you looked at them closely at all you'd see they specifically try to weed out those ultra-religious and racist types.

Don't think you tried to deny Pelosi, Reid and Obama have been opposed to any sort of energy solution that could work, because their record is what it is, and they are in fact your party leaders, along with that Shultz lady, who even Anderson Cooper on CNN has called out as a lying dirtbag.

So again, nice try, but the facts are what they are, even if you try to extrapolate a couple incidents on the fringe of a party and paint the whole party in the same color. If you spent half the time trying to run the anti-human Marxists out of your own party as you do trolling we'd all be better off.


RE: There is no rare earths shortage in the US
By Samus on 10/27/2012 1:13:09 AM , Rating: 2
Damn that video depresses me.


By Ringold on 10/27/2012 1:23:35 AM , Rating: 2
It should; it's essentially how to quietly strangle an economy via obscure regulation.


RE: There is no rare earths shortage in the US
By guacamojo on 10/26/2012 3:27:41 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Thorium MSRs are such a panacea to so many of our simultaneous and looming problems, they almost sound too good to be true.

To quote Hyman Rickover (father of the nuclear navy):

quote:
An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.

On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.

Right now, by Rickover's criteria, Thorium MSR's are "academic." What does that mean for the "practical" version?


RE: There is no rare earths shortage in the US
By boeush on 10/26/2012 3:42:43 PM , Rating: 4
Obviously, it means a lot of R&D required. Just as is the case for most other clean energy alternatives (even including wind and solar.)

Personally, I'd rather have US spend $100 Billion per year on Thorium MSR R&D, than toward the 1/7th of current Pentagon budget -- the payoff toward US national and energy security would be a whole lot greater, and the money would spend a lot more productively (rather than destructively, as it happens in military engagements.)

Also as an aside, the main reason Thorium MSRs were never commercialized, is because government financial and regulatory subsidies were deliberately tailored to favor nuclear fuel cycles and reactor designs that enabled weaponization. Since LFTRs do not produce any easily weaponizable fission byproducts, they were never sponsored by any major government, and so were allowed to wither on the vine. Personally, I view the lack of easy path to weaponization as one of the many huge advantages of LFTR technology (the other major ones being safety due to impossibility of meltdown or runaway fission, drastic reduction in both volume and life of waste, ability to recycle existing nuclear waste, tremendous abundance and relatively low cost of fuel, and side-benefits such as increased production of rare-earth metals and other valuable elements and isotopes, and easily utilizable high-heat energy source for direct chemical synthesis without lossy energy conversions to/from electricity.)


By mackx on 10/26/2012 7:11:10 PM , Rating: 2
question - aren't india and china looking into thorium reactors in a big way? and according to the link below - canada too.

just to note - judging from the name of the site - i don't expect them to be bias free :o

http://thoriumforum.com/canada-and-china-work-thor...


"This week I got an iPhone. This weekend I got four chargers so I can keep it charged everywhere I go and a land line so I can actually make phone calls." -- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg














botimage
Copyright 2014 DailyTech LLC. - RSS Feed | Advertise | About Us | Ethics | FAQ | Terms, Conditions & Privacy Information | Kristopher Kubicki