Rare Earth Materials
As technological innovation continues to move forward at breakneck speed, many consumers might be surprised to learn what's behind some of the products they've come to rely on every day. Few things have had as significant an impact on modern technology as rare earth materials. These advanced elements, sometimes referred to as rare earth metals, drive the miniaturization of popular computer and electronic devices such as the iPod and power hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius, among other uses.
As rare earth materials play an increasingly critical role in global industries, a new ASTM International subcommittee is ready to address major challenges across the life cycle of these vital resources. ASTM Subcommittee F40.04 on Rare Earth Materials, part of ASTM International Committee F40 on Declarable Substances in Materials, is pursuing a standards development agenda aimed at supporting efficient and safe production, utilization and recycling of rare earths.
Rare earth materials are alloys and compounds that comprise one or more of a set of 17 chemical elements, including the 15 lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium. These materials support the manufacturing of innovative products such as smartphones, flat screen televisions, night-vision goggles and rechargeable batteries. Rare earths help make these and many other technologies smaller, lighter and more affordable.
Ever wonder why those tiny headphones you use to listen to your favorite music produce such great sound? The key is rare earths and their ability to pack a lot of power into a smaller space. Any product that incorporates a small electric motor, like a set of headphones, often relies on magnets to operate. Before the use of rare earths, producing a strong magnetic field required big magnets, leading to the manufacture of heavy, clunky technology. Today, rare earth materials like neodymium enable the manufacture of magnets that are much smaller, yet significantly stronger, than their predecessors.
Unlike their name, rare earths are actually relatively abundant in the earth's crust, even more abundant than many precious minerals. But with their close similarity in terms of chemical properties, rare earths are not typically found in concentrated forms and are difficult to separate. As a result, their mining and extraction are often costly and labor intensive.
The challenges associated with rare earth procurement come at a time when the need for these materials is rapidly escalating. To help generate the new product portfolios that will ensure their ongoing competitiveness, global companies are looking for greater access to rare earth materials to stockpile their internal supplies. This increased demand has converged with supply bottlenecks, resulting in a looming shortage of these resources throughout the worldwide high-tech, energy and automotive sectors. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, global demand for rare earths could exceed 200,000 tons (180 Gg) by 2014, which would eclipse current production by more than 75,000 tons (83 Gg) per year.1
To better ensure that rare earths are more readily available for industry use, public and private sector stakeholders are focusing on ways to diversify supplies. In recent years, China has been providing more than 90 percent of rare earth elements worldwide. To stock the supply chain, stakeholders point to large untapped deposits of rare earths in other parts of Asia, Australia, Russia, South Africa, the United States and other areas. To successfully tap into these reserves, however, requires strategies that will support economically favorable and environmentally friendly mining activities.
Equally important to enhancing supply in the years ahead are 1) the adoption of more efficient manufacturing techniques that will contribute to the use of fewer materials in production processes; and 2) standards facilitating increased recycling so that used rare earths can be reclaimed from spent consumer and industrial products.
As the issues and challenges surrounding rare earth materials continue to evolve, ASTM International Subcommittee F40.04 will fulfill a critical need for the global marketplace: developing first-time standards that drive the safe production and utilization of rare earths and provide methods for increasing material recycling and reuse.
Taco van der Maten, product manager for X-ray fluorescence at PANalytical in Almelo, the Netherlands, chairman of ASTM Committee F40 and a member of the ASTM International board of directors, says, "To drive growth and ongoing competitiveness across numerous industries, global manufacturers rely on access to the rare earths and other critical materials that are at the heart of product innovation. Through the development of standards that drive the efficient use of available resources and streamline recycling processes, ASTM F40.04 will contribute to a healthier rare earth supply chain and a sustainable, long-term supply of materials."
F40.04's standards development activities for rare earths will address a wide range of needs, including chemical and physical identification, characterization and testing; classification and terminology; recycling, reuse and recapture of materials; efficient use of available resources; environmental considerations for selection and use; material selection; alternative material selection and effectiveness testing; labeling and end-of-life considerations; and guides for supply chain management and risk management.
"The pragmatic ASTM process provides the speed and collaboration to enable diverse international stakeholders to swiftly and effectively offer relevant, high quality solutions to the real-time issues confronting the rare earth materials market," says van der Maten.
With their unique magnetic, catalytic and luminescent properties, rare earth elements are also at the core of the development of clean energy technologies, including the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels. Large wind turbine designs are enhanced by the use of rare earth magnets, which support greater output and enable the deployment of gearless generators for better reliability and online performance.
Underscoring the importance of rare earth materials to green energy growth, the U.S. Department of Energy has established the Critical Materials Institute at its Ames Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. The institute will bring together leading researchers from academia, four U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories and the private sector to find ways to help avoid a rare earth supply shortage.
The DOE's "2011 Critical Materials Strategy Summary" report notes that supply challenges for five rare earth metals (dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium) may affect clean energy technology deployment in the coming years.2 CMI will spearhead a coordinated effort designed to eliminate materials criticality as an impediment to the commercialization of clean energy technologies, and it will address challenges across the entire life cycle of these materials. This ranges from enabling new sources; improving the economics of existing sources; accelerating material development and deployment; more efficient use in manufacturing, recycling and reuse; and developing strategies to assess and address the life cycles of new materials.
Alex King, D.Phil., director of the Critical Materials Institute, says, "As we pursue our mandate to eliminate barriers to the advancement of clean energy, standards that improve efficiency in the use of rare earth materials and make it easier for recycling will be an important strategy in helping fulfill our mission. We look forward to consulting with the technical experts at ASTM International and working cooperatively to achieve our common goals."
Another sector with a major stake in the future developments of rare earth materials is the lighting industry. Rare earths such as lanthanum, cerium, terbium, yttrium and europium comprise 85 percent of the phosphors used for the creation of white light in fluorescent lamps. In addition, as the industry looks to make the transition from traditional light sources to energy-efficient solid-state LED (light emitting diode) technologies, rare earths will support the development of LED products that deliver lower energy consumption, longer life, improved robustness, smaller size and greater reliability.
Robert Horner, director of public policy for the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, New York, N.Y., says, "As the lighting industry continues to address the critically important supply issues surrounding rare earth materials, we believe that ASTM International's standards development efforts will help to bring further order. There is a strong need throughout the marketplace for standards that address rare earth processing, as well as recycling efforts. The technical experts at IES look forward to cooperating with ASTM to fulfill these important goals."
1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Rare Earth Elements: A Review of Production, Processing, Recycling, and Associated Environmental Issues," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Dec. 2012.
2. U.S. Department of Energy, "2011 Critical Materials Strategy Summary," Dec. 2011.Doug Clauson is a freelance writer based in Wynnewood, Pa.