This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Disappearing Elements? - Part IV

Yet another element has turned up on the “Where’s it going to come from in the future?” list. (See my earlier posts). Recently, Fetzthechemist discussed the use of Nd-Fe-B magnets slated to be used in upcoming wind-to-energy conversion devices. His point was that the world’s current capacity for producing neodymium was insufficient to meet these future needs. This doesn’t mean the project is necessarily doomed. As a general rule, the inevitable price spikes which occur whenever demand exceeds supply often leads to the discovery of new, albeit more expensive, sources and methods of extraction. But at what point does the difference between running out of an element and being unable to use it due to cost become moot? Developers of new technologies will need to start paying more attention to the future availability of their starting materials. Maybe those alchemists obsessed with the transmutation of metals were just preparing for the future.

I’ve also noticed that many of these disappearing elements seem to be associated with new energy technologies. My first post on this subject came after reading a stock analysis criticizing a company’s (First Solar) plan to significantly increase their solar cell production – a plan which would have required using 16% of the world’s current capacity of tellurium. Hopefully this is not a trend which will continue.

On the brighter side, my son no longer needs training wheels for his bike. My enthusiasm, however, is somewhat dampened by the soreness which I’m now experiencing after having spent yesterday running along side his bike, trying to help him maintain balance, while accelerating down our street. (Our sub has no sidewalks) He was probably ready to learn this last summer, but we never got around to it. So it took him less than a day to learn, to my great relief.


DiamondDad said...

Don't despair yet Chemist Ken! There are a few dedicated folk out there that are diligently looking for sources of those strange and wonderful minor metals of which you speak. I know because I'm one of them. While things are not critical yet, in terms of supply, they will rapidly get that way as the demand for alternate energy applications skyrockets.

You hit the nail right on the head when you talked about developers paying more attention to their starting materials before they get carried away with commercializing applications. I work in mineral exploration and when I started working on sources of strategic minerals I got my first chance to actually meet and talk with the manufacturers-the users of these elements. And I was completely shocked to find out that, for the most part, they didn't have a clue as to where their materials came from!

Most of my effort is focused on the rare earth elements (the lanthanides to you chemists)and neodymium is one of the rare earth elements. Currently there is no shortage of neodymium when you look at global supply and demand, but those numbers don't tell you that basically 100% of the rare earths come from China. And over the past couple of years the Chinese have made a concerted effort to make sure that manufacturers outside of China have a tougher time getting their hands on rare earth products. They have imposed mining quotas within China, physical export quotas, export tarriffs and reduced the number of companies allowed to export rare earths. All this while their own internal consumption is rising so today China consumes 50% of the rare earth it produces. Current supply/demand projections show that by 2013 or so that China may comsume everything they produce. It is my opinion that these projections woefully underestimate the demand for the elements used in magnets (neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium)because of the stunning rapidity with which wind power is being implemented as a source of electricity. So whatever the time frame, a crisis is looming unless sources of these critical elements are found outside of China.

I believe that adequate sources of these elements do exist. The challenges are that only a few of us are looking for them; there are fewer and fewer jusrisdictions that are mining-friendly; bringing a mine onstream takes several years; and in the short term risk capital has pretty much disappeared.

Despite that I am optimistic that we will be able to supply enough rare earths and the other elements you have mentioned to ensure the success of most alternative energy initiatives.

Chemist Ken said...

DiamondDad, I've read about China's reluctance to let their neodymium supplies flow outside their country, but hadn't realized how much they were doing to stop it. China consumes 50% of their Nd? That's something like 13,000 metric tons a year, if I remember correctly. What are they doing with it all? I think the US only produces about 600 tons a year. How much does the US need right now?

DiamondDad said...

I have some recent estimates for 2008 rare earth consumption that shows China consuming 74,000 tonnes of RE out of total global consumption of 124,000 tonnes (nearly all of which is mined in China) or 60% internal consumption. Of the 74,000 t that China consumes, 21,000 t are for magnets. I don't have the breakdown specifically for Nd, so this figure likely includes Nd, Pr, Dy and Tb. Total global use of RE for magnets totals 26,500 t. So China consumes internally 79% of that, Japan consumes 3,500 t (13%), the US only 500 t (2%) Europe et al 6%.

So the answer to your question of what China does with all the Nd is they make magnets and to a lesser extent make Nd metal to sell to magnet makers. There really are no permanent magnet makers left in the US anymore (except perhaps one small company)since Magnequench was allowed to be sold to the Chinese by GM in 1995 and the US plants shut down.

Total US RE consumption is quoted as 18,500 t for 2008 (or 15% of world consumption). I suspect these numbers are hard to compile because the US imports thousands of products that contain REs.

These figures come from a presentation made by Industrial Minerals Company of Australia (IMCOA)a couple of weeks ago in Toronto. The principal is an expert in the rare earth industry and consults to groups like Roskill who publish reference material on many metals.

John Fetzer said...

I added an update on that post after reading a little later that tellurium was another. It falls within that long list of impurities in the ores of bulk metals (copper, iron, tin, zinc, gold, silver, lead, et cetera). There are no big sources of it by itself.