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Rare Earth Super Neodymium Magnets
Rare Earth Neodymium Magnets Have Interesting Properties
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.