Yale Study says we’re a long way from finding substitutes for rare earth elements
Here’s some much needed good news for rare earths (and critical metals in general, even most non-critical ones). A team from Yale University investigated possible substitutes for 62 different metals. Their conclusion: “For not one of the 62 metals are exemplary substitutes available for all major uses”. For some uses, yes, but not all, as will see in the case of tungsten.
The study was done within the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Centre for Industrial Ecology at Yale and just recently reviewed and signed off at Harvard.
In starting their paper, the authors make a point that goes to an argument that I have put forward several times on this site: that it is difficult to make any real projections and forecasts because technology is changing too quickly — as in, no one in 1990 could have factored in iPhones.
“A century ago, or even half a century ago, less (author’s note: they mean “fewer“) than 12 materials were in wide use: wood, brick, iron, copper, gold, silver and a few plastics.” Yet today a modern computer chip involves the use of more than 60 different elements. (The Yale team is probably being a little restrictive: tungsten, for example, was vital in 20th century wars for bullets and shells; but their general point is well taken.)
The technological revolution is a two-edged sword. All those wonderful new applications against, as the report puts it, the challenge: “Can robust supplies of all these materials be ensured?” Their conclusion is reassuring and far short of some of the more hysterical claims from the Club of Rome 40 or so years ago that we were on the road to exhausting the world’s natural resources and, more recently, predictions in a reputable science journal seven years ago that the world was about to run out of indium (note: there’s still plenty available). The Yale authors say society will need to pay more attention to the acquisition and maintenance of non-renewable sources than has been the case in the past; after all, growing populations, growing affluence and modern technologies are beginning to strain resource supply. But then they add the calming conclusion: “The situation need not inspire panic, but should instead stimulate more diligent and more comprehensive approaches to the balance between supply and demand”.
But it’s the substitution issue that does put all the above in relief. The challenge, of course, does not always pertain to potential resources. With manganese, for example, there is no substitute available in the steel-making process, but then there’s no shortage of resource. Then we saw with Japan the “reduce, recycle and replace” attempts to free themselves from dependence on Chinese REE — not because there’s a worldwide shortage of rare earth elements, especially the lights (and eventually the heavies when non-China mines get going), so much as the politics of it.
Also, much of that Japanese effort — which includes the plans to mine REE from the ocean floor — was a response to the 2011 price craziness. If the cost is great, or supplies become difficult to obtain, then you just encourage end-users to look for substitutes. The report cites the case of cobalt use in batteries during the civil war in what was then Zaire in the 1970s: scientists at General Motors developed excellent magnets which used no cobalt.
But, of course, cobalt has uses other than magnets. It is still needed for those.
So take Yale’s breakdown of tungsten. Half of the metal produced goes into cemented carbides (for metal-cutting tools, mining equipment, etc). There is a substitute: boron nitride. But this gives only “adequate” substitute performance. For light filaments, tool dies, and turbine engine components, molybdenum and nickel-molybdenum substitues provide “good” performance (note, that’s not 100% performance substitution) while for other uses such as pigments and counterweights, there is no single substitute over all cases.
And there are further variations. Zinc and aluminium have substitutes available that provide moderate to good performance, but not even that is the case for the widely used metals such as copper, chromium, manganese and lead.
The bottom line here is that replacement by substitutes works in some cases, but even then is not as good as the original. Japan might be able to come up with technologies that allow, for example, smaller amounts of dysprosium to be used in applications, or find a substitute here and there.
But as we stand now, the REE (and other critical metal companies) should press on getting supplies to market. They will be needed.
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