Scientists find an alternative to rare earths to avoid dependence on China
Artificial production of tetrataenite could open up alternatives for the technology industry
The Chinese giant dominates 80% of the global supply of metals for the manufacture of computers, solar panels or electric cars. These come from the so-called ‘rare earths’, the common name for 17 chemical elements: scandium, yttrium and the 15 elements of the lanthanide group. They are called rare because it is very rare to find these elements in a pure form.
Now, a group of scientists at the University of Cambridge in collaboration with colleagues in Austria have discovered a method for making the high-performance magnets characteristic of rare earths, namely tetrataenite, an alloy of iron and nickel that could replace these magnets and be produced on a large scale.
The surprising thing was that no special treatment was needed: we simply melted the alloy, poured it into a mold and obtained tetrataenite,” admits Professor Lindsay Greer, from the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy at Cambridge.
Its natural formation occurs from the cooling of a meteorite over millions of years. This gives the iron and nickel atoms enough time to arrange themselves in a particular stacking sequence within the crystal structure, ultimately resulting in a material with magnetic properties close to those of rare-earth magnets.
Although at the moment it is only a line of research, the artificial production of tetrataenite would open up alternatives for the technology industry. This would facilitate large-scale production, at reasonable costs and with the advantage of not having to wait the millions of years that nature takes to form these elements.
In 1960 it was already possible to form tetrataenite artificially by bombarding iron and nickel alloys with neutrons. However, this method of production was not compatible with mass production.
Tensions with China
In 2019, China threatened to reduce rare earth exports as a counterattack in the trade war against the United States. Faced with this, President Joe Biden redoubled efforts to increase production of critical materials to reduce dependence on the Asian giant.
This finding could be a serious blow to the Chinese economy, since these materials, so coveted for the manufacture of wind turbines and electric cars, are a great asset for the country governed by Xi Jinping.