Is It Time To Re-Establish A North-American Rare-Earth Information Center?

by Gareth Hatch on September 14, 2009

in Organizations, Rare Earths

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It is October 1993 and I have just walked into Lab 11, the home of the University of Birmingham’s Applied Alloy Chemistry Group. I am here on my first day as a postgraduate research student, hoping to make some tiny contribution to the world of rare-earth permanent-magnet material development. This is the space in which I will be spending much of the next four years working, playing and even occasionally sleeping. One of the Group’s old hands shows me to my work area, and as I wonder what comes next, he drops a nine-inch stack of papers on to what passes for my desk. “Take a gander at these”, he says, “and then we’ll talk”.

As I look down at the top of the pile, staring back at me is a strange-looking triangle, littered with a miscellany of what appear to be arcane letters and symbols. Thus it was, that I was introduced for the first time to the Ames Lab’s Rare-earth Information Center, and its RIC News publication – resources which, over time, would become indispensable to my subsequent research.

The Rare-earth Information Center [RIC] was established by the US Atomic Energy Commission in January 1966, at the Ames Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. According to the RIC’s Web site, the goal of the Center was to “service the scientific and technological communities by collecting, storing, evaluating, and disseminating rare-earth information from various sources”. Two years later, responsibility for the RIC was transferred to Iowa State’s Institute for Physical Research and Technology.

The RIC was an incredible resource for industry, government, seasoned research scientists and rookie postgraduate students alike. In an era before the World Wide Web, the RIC database of papers, reports, patents, conference proceedings, news and other information was an amazing store of valuable knowledge on rare-earth elements, ores, minerals and compounds. Even as access to such information became easier with the advent of the Web, there was no better distillation of developments in this field, than the RIC News and RIC Insight publications that Ames Lab’s Karl Gschneidner and later Bill McCallum worked tirelessly to produce.

The Center was financially supported through grants and donations from all over the world. After leaving Birmingham in 1997 to join my new employer, I was pleased to see that we were long-time financial supporters of the RIC, and I continued to receive the updates on rare earths to which I had grown accustomed.

Alas, in July 2002, the RIC closed, a victim of changing times, ever-decreasing funding and perhaps a perceived terminal decline in the rare-earths industry in North America [and frankly, everywhere else outside of China]. Bill McCallum still maintains the archived RIC Database which contains over 100,000 references collected up until 2002, but the database has not been updated since the RIC closed.

And so, here we are in 2009, on the cusp of a massive revival of activity in the world of rare earths outside of China. Earlier this week, Jack Lifton talked about his concept of our travelling “On The Green Road” – the route beyond China that is required to take us from the location and mining of rare earths and other technology metals, through to the refining of ores and minerals into useful metals and compounds, the transformation of these metals and compounds into components and finally the design and production of the devices into which these components are placed.

As we travel down Jack’s Green Road, we’re going to need to cross-train and to educate a new generation of engineers, geologists, metallurgists and other scientists on rare earth metals – their extraction, refinement and uses. We’re going to need to educate the entrepreneurs, investors, business development folks and financial types, on the criticality of these materials to the future of technology, and the types of investments required for infrastructure, production and supply chain development.

Certainly Web sites like the RareMetalBlog are a tremendous asset in this regard, and there is more information than ever out there, both on the Web and elsewhere.  However, I can’t help thinking that without an entity [or entities] to serve a role similar to that which the old Rare-earth Information Center once did – to objectively centralize, parse and distribute all kinds of valuable information on rare earths, to industry, academia and government alike – we could miss a golden opportunity here.

Such a resource [or resources] could accelerate the development of the multi-disciplinary talents and skill sets needed to move us along that Green Road, at the pace that is required to meet the time-sensitive, strategic technology needs of the developed world – and beyond.

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