January 10th, 2021 by Jennifer Sensiba
Irish researchers recently figured out where a lot more rare earth minerals could be found, which could make a big difference for renewable energy technologies.
Why Rare Earth Elements Matter
Metals like ytterbium, scandium, and neodynium are used to make permanent magnets, or magnets that are always magnetic, and without supplying an electric current. If you’ve ever played with magnets as a kid (or as an adult kid), you know that they’ll pull together in one direction, but push away from each other when put the other way. You might wonder whether you can do anything useful with that energy, and the answer is YES, but as they say in economics, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (TANSTAAFL).
To get useful work out of a permanent magnet, you need another magnet that can be switched on and off at the right times, so you’ll need to supply electricity to an electromagnet to keep something like an electric car or a ceiling fan moving.
Unlike the engine in a gas-powered car, you can power electric motors with electricity from clean sources. Tesla uses permanent magnets in a Model 3’s motors made with neodynium, iron, and boron. Clean energy generation, especially wind turbines, also need rare earth metals in their generators.
Beyond electric motors and generators, rare earths are used in a variety of other electronic, industrial, and other applications, so there was already a lot of demand for them before clean technology started to become more popular in recent years.
Rarity Is A Problem
When Tesla’s suppliers want to make a magnet for a Model 3’s drive motor, there’s plenty of iron to be found. Go outside with a magnet, rub it in the dirt, and you’ll likely have a tiny bit of iron stuck to it when you pick the magnet back up. The stuff is everywhere. Boron isn’t as common, but minerals containing boron are still relatively easy to get ahold of.
Neodymium, like other rare earth metals, is rare. There are over 250 types of minerals that contain some rare earth elements, but it’s too difficult and expensive to filter out the rare earths from most of them. Only three types of minerals allow easy refining, so usable rare earth metals are even more rare.
Because not every country has a good supply, and everyone needs them, it’s a source of a lot of geopolitical strife and economic hardship.
“The fact that we need more REEs urges us to find out more about the geochemical behaviour of these precious elements. Simply, we need to know a lot more about REEs, and how and why they form, if we want more of them.” said Adrienn Maria Szucs, a PhD Candidate, and author of the study.
What The Scientists Found
Currently, most usable rare earth minerals come from carbonatite deposits, and the biggest deposits known right now are in China. How rare earth minerals form in carbonatite deposits isn’t 100% understood by scientists, so it’s very possible that rare earth minerals could form in other types of deposits in ways currently unexpected.
Finding other viable sources around the world would prove very valuable, and could help other countries compete in the global market as demand continues to rise. To find other potential sources, the researchers looked at bastnäsite, another mineral that would allow for easy extraction and that may exist in many other places globally.
“…in some rare earth-bearing deposits the origin of bastnäsite could be simply a consequence of the interaction of calcite with rare earth-rich fluids. This is not the only reaction that forms bastnäsite but the discovery is particularly important because calcite is found everywhere and is also the most stable calcium carbonate in nature. As a result, it suggests it should be possible to support the formation of bastnäsite under the right conditions,” Szucs said.
Calcite is a lot more common, and armed with this understanding, geologists can now look at more sites that may be suitable for the mining of rare earth minerals. If the researchers are right, there could be a lot more places to find them.
If they’re even just a little less rare than we thought, it could make a big difference in bringing down the cost of renewal energy generation and the products that can use the energy, such as electric cars. It could also make a big difference on the world stage.
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