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Rare Earth Super Neodymium Magnets

Updated on December 29, 2011

Rare Earth Neodymium Magnets Have Interesting Properties

photo by yellowcloud (flickr)
photo by yellowcloud (flickr)

Rare Earth Magnets

Next up in the series of all Rare Earth Elements this article explores the interesting world of magnetism and the super neodymium magnet industry. Neodymium (Nd) was discovered in 1885 from some of the same ore as the other lanthanides in the rare earth metals grouping. With an atomic number of 60 it is not present in a metallic form in nature but rather mixed in minerals containing the neighboring rare earth metals. Although there are uses in the areas of glass dyes and television sets as well as other strong markets, it is probably magnetism that has led to the element's most widespread use. For example, neodymium iron bore magnets are some of the strongest permanent magnets in existence and also some of the most cost efficient in regards to price of production. For that reason they can be found in consumer electronics from microphones to earbuds for your iphone to hybrid car motors and generators. Their uses are seemingly infinite.

The beauty of magnets made from this earth element is that their strong magnetic field allows for a smaller surface area than previously available. That means that they can be used in the ever slimming line of smart phones, tablets, hard drives and other digital devices and playthings. We are talking forces greater than 1.5 Teslas whereas older ferrite or alnico magnets only carried a field of about 1-2 thirds of that. However, things could get interesting quickly with the recent reopening of the Mountain Pass rare earths mine and other mines around the world.

That mine is likely to produce a greater output of Cerium and Lanthanum due to their greater abundance in nature. In fact, compared to Neodymium there is four times more Cerium beneath our feet. The US government is stepping in with such initiatives as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies where companies General Motors, NovaTorque, and MolyCorp will partner to attempt to combine cerium and other metallic elements to replace the neodymium class with the next generation. If they are successful then this could mean even less expensive super magnets for electric and hybric cars while at the same time helping to remove the dependency on foreign sources. There is also another ARPA-E project in the works to look at replacing rare earth magnets all together with Manganese based ones contributing to rare-earth free alternatives for similar industries. With millions of dollars going into projects such as these and many players looking to enter the market for these desirable materials it is clear that magnets are big business and will continue to be for the a long time into the future.

There are other reasons to search for rare earth alternatives and also to look for better extraction methods than the sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, and sodium hydroxide mixture that is currently popular. One of these is environmental pollution which has been a side effect of the desire to quickly amass the vast fortunes available to companies that are able to lay claim to the deposits of ore containing neodymium and its sister rare earths. China, where about 95 percent of the material is sourced, has seen increasing environmental devastation throughout many of its cities. Inner Mongolia is just one example where veritable toxic lakes have been created from the waste product of the extraction process. It is shameful that the smoke-billowing factories have laid waste to countless acres in the name of serving the "green" energy initiatives of other countries. Acids, other chemicals, and sometimes radioactive byproducts are continually consuming once beautiful masses of land as they churn out millions of tons of material per annum.

I started to write this article with a suggestion to pick up a set of these super rare earth magnets as a novelty item. Many hours of fun have been had by hobbyists and in school science classrooms with these cheap and impressive items. However, the environmental impacts are just too great for me to proceed with such an advocacy. When you realize that the Chinese industry is practically destroying farms, villages, and the people in them it makes for a tough decision. Workers slave for low wages with hardly any protection to push out bricks of this material and probably most will pay with their life just as many did in the early days of the coal mining boom. That does not mean that neodymium and others are not very important elements in the progress of civilization but just that we must be careful to avoid the detrimental side effects if we wish to truly protect our planet. With 2012 looking to be a game changing year in the market of rare earths and US sources being pursued full force it is even more important that the proper safeguards are put into place.


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    • againsttheodds profile image
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      againsttheodds 5 years ago

      Thanks for the comment KathyH, it is a shame, but unfortunately the rare earths are so prevalent in everything in so much of electronics that it would be hard for the average consumer to eliminate consumption completely. I voted up your insightful look at the gold mining problems in Africa as well.

    • KathyH profile image

      KathyH 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Excellent article! :) It's a shame that toxic lakes were left behind in Mongolia, and all of the other destruction that takes place in the name of "progress." Voted "up" and very interesting! ;)

    • dipless profile image

      dipless 5 years ago from Manchester

      This is a very interesting article with some excellent research and information. It was good to read,I look forward to reading more of your rare earth materials articles.

    • againsttheodds profile image
      Author

      againsttheodds 5 years ago

      Thanks davenmidtown, I do not know of neodymium being made artificially in a lab or anything. It is true that rare earths is sort of a misnomer for the lanthanides because they are fairly abundant but the problem is getting them in large enough reserves to efficiently mine and extract the elements. China is also manipulating the market to an extent which is causing problems with the supply. But as far as truly rare like gold or other precious metals, they are not. Even some children's toy sets can have super neodymium permanent magnets which have led to injury and fatalities from young kids swallowing them and sometimes multiple magnets have attracted within the intestines trapping the intestinal lining in between leading to necrosis and other issues requiring surgery and medical assistance.

    • davenmidtown profile image

      David Stillwell 5 years ago from Sacramento, California

      Interesting article...is it possible for man to make neodimium? Or is this specifically a limited supply based on what was created through natural means? This article reminded me of the toxic waste here in California following the search for gold and the arsenic toxicity that formed in standing pools and seasonal ponds....

    • againsttheodds profile image
      Author

      againsttheodds 5 years ago

      That is some very pertinent information there Larry and I thank you for your comment. If indeed rare earths can be harvested from trees or other sources that would be a greatly more suitable alternative to the current toxic mess that many of the plants work in. I'll have to look into this further and thank you for citing that excellent abstract from the Canadian Journal of Botany.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California

      I loved this hub, againsttheodds! Voted up and interesting.

      Nitpick Larry prefers the term Lanthanides, because the Rare Earths--especially cerium--are not really all that rare; their distribution in Nature is just inconvenient for us. Researchers are looking over the horizon, at the day when the relatively high-grade RE ores at the Mountain Pass mine are depleted, and we take a closer look at higher-cost options.

      For whatever it's worth, at least some of the RE elements bio-accumulate in hickory leaves, of all things. Here's a link to an abstract.

      "Accumulation of rare earths and circulation of cerium by mockernut hickory trees"

      William A. Thomas

      http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/b7...

    • againsttheodds profile image
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      againsttheodds 5 years ago

      Thank you for your compliments! I'm just getting started here but really enjoy the community and hope to make some decent contributions.

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      What a fascinating article. Very well researched and very well written. Voted up + interesting! Many thanks for sharing.

    • youngbesttips profile image

      youngbesttips 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Amazing