As they extract and refine a crucial element necessary for technological advancement, people are ruining the Earth, leaving enormous gouges in its crust, contaminating the air, and fouling the earth. One day, while investigating an alien meteorite, scientists find a special metal that eliminates the need for all of the pollution and excavation. The metal can be recreated in a lab using simple ingredients, which is the best part. The world is kept alive!
Okay, we slightly exaggerated the tale there. First of all, no aliens (unless you know something we don’t). The rest, though, is accurate. Recently, two scientific teams, one at Northeastern University in Boston and the other at the University of Cambridge in the UK, revealed that they had successfully created a substance that does not naturally occur on Earth in a lab setting. It has only ever been discovered in meteorites up to now.
The substance identified in the meteorites is a mixture of two basic metals, nickel and iron, which were cooled over millions of years when meteoroids and asteroids crashed through space, according to Laura Henderson Lewis, one of the academics on the Northeastern team. This procedure produced a special compound that has a specific combination of properties that make it perfect for use in premium permanent magnets, which are a vital part of a wide variety of cutting-edge machinery, from electric automobiles to space shuttle engines.
Tetrataenite is the name of the substance, and the discovery that researchers can produce it in a lab is quite significant. Green energy solutions may become much more affordable if synthetic tetrataenite becomes successful in industrial applications. Additionally, it may upend the market for rare earths, which is now controlled by China, and cause a fundamental shift in the relative industrial might of China and the West.
Earthly, yet oh, so uncommon
Magnets are a vital part of every piece of equipment that works on electricity, as all of our readers will likely recall from their high school science courses: they are the conduit that transfers electric power into mechanical motion.
The majority of magnets are rather affordable and simple to manufacture, like the magnet in the battery-operated clock hanging on your office wall, for instance. On the other hand, the permanent magnets used in cutting-edge technology must be able to withstand extreme pressures and temperatures for extended periods of time. They also require a particular component, a rare earth, in order to gain those qualities.
Rare earths are not all that uncommon. They are substances that exist all over the earth. Getting them out is the challenging part. You have to dig them out of the ground, for starters. That’s difficult enough. Then, as they are frequently intermingled with other components or materials, you must separate them. It is expensive and messy to break down and refine these compounds to obtain the basic materials.
Before China discovered a vast source of these elements inside its borders in the 1980s, the US dominated the rare earths industry. President of Stormcrow Capital, an investing company that monitors the rare earths markets, is Jonathan Hykawy. His account of this discovery is interesting.
According to Hykawy, “a few Chinese corporations established iron ore mines in inner Mongolia, and they were creating waste stuff that ended up in their tailings piles.” The Chinese allowed the Japanese to sample the waste piles while they were purchasing large quantities of this iron. When the Japanese returned a short time later and requested to purchase the waste, the Chinese responded, “Well, why wouldn’t we sell it to you? I mean, it’s waste. What are we going to do with it? Turns out it was rich in rare earths.”
Pretty soon after, the Chinese realized what was going on and started mining these rare elements themselves. They could do it far more affordably than anybody else because their labor costs were much lower, and they were prepared to accept the substantial environmental implications. According to Hykawy, US production quickly stopped, and China essentially grabbed control of the market. At present, China is in charge of more than 71% of global rare earth extraction and 87% of global rare earth processing.
Because neodymium and praseodymium, two of these rare earths, are essential ingredients in the production of permanent magnets, China currently controls the permanent magnet industry as well, producing more than 80% of these expensive devices. This didn’t seem to be an issue ten years ago. China was a willing and cooperative trade partner, and in 2004, the US actually outsourced the manufacturing of magnets used in the guidance systems for American cruise missiles and precision bombs to a Chinese company. This indicates that China was seen as being unthreatening by the US.
Laura Lewis explains, “We had US manufacture.” “Magnaquench, a General Motors subsidiary, was in Anderson, Indiana, and it exported its products in large quantities to China. It was a short-term economic strategy; we made money up front, but we eventually lost our skills.”
Relations with China are more tense now. Additionally, as we transition to a clean-energy economy, there is a growing need for both rare earths and permanent magnets.
In this crucial sector for its economic and national security, the US has come to the understanding that it is at a huge strategic disadvantage versus China. In addition to exploring prospective new mining locations in Arizona, Nevada, and Wyoming, it has revived a dormant rare earths mine in California. The opening of those mines, however, will take more than ten years.
A key change
According to Jonathan Hykawy, this is why the finding of synthetic tetrataenite is so fascinating. For all save the most demanding pieces of machinery, permanent magnets could be made from the combination due to its extreme toughness. If that occurs, the US might eliminate its requirement for some rare earths and fill a significant portion of the magnet market on its own. And it would result in a significant change in American ties with China. The US would no longer be dependent on a rival for these necessary minerals or be obligated to them for specific components required for the creation of crucial technology.
There might be a drawback, though. Rare earths are employed for more than merely making permanent magnets. They are utilized in televisions, personal electronics, fiber optics, and radiation scanners. Tetrataenite may cause a significant portion of the rare earths market to disappear, which might impact the manufacturing of all of these other significant rare earths, according to Hykawy. A variety of consumer and industrial items may become much more expensive to create, which would increase their price.
Tetrataenite won’t be able to affect any current markets for a very long time, according to Laura Lewis. If lab tetrataenite is as durable and practical as the material from outer space, she claims, there is still a lot more testing to be done. And even if it does, it will take five to eight years of “pedal to the metal” before anyone can use it to create permanent magnets.
Meanwhile, China’s rivals are working hard to find their own sources of rare earths. The US is funding mines in Australia, Malaysia is doing exploration, and Japan is looking into ways to extract components from mud extracted from the ocean floor. According to Jonathan Hykawy, there is no reason why other nations can’t compete on an equal footing with China provided they are ready to invest in rare earth extraction and accept the environmental consequences.
“You can overcome those challenges and make these things in an environmentally friendly manner,” he asserts. “If we were ready to spend enough to produce these things.” This isn’t any worse than, say, mining for and making aluminum.