Tackling The Rare Metals Shortage: Can We Learn From The Japanese?

by Gareth Hatch on November 5, 2009

in Indium, Permanent Magnets, Rare Earths

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We’ve heard much in the past 12-18 months about the very real possibility of there being a shortfall, in a few years, in the supply of certain rare-earth elements to companies and countries outside of China. In particular, heavy-rare-earth elements [HREEs] such as dysprosium are already subject to discussion and scrutiny for restrictions in exports. Dysprosium is a key component in producing rare-earth permanent magnets that can withstand high operating temperatures. This is important, for example, in motor applications, particular for automobiles.

The primary response to the possible future scarcity of HREEs, has been to focus, with some occasional hand-wringing, on the efforts to bring on-stream, rare-earth resources around the planet that can provide us with the elements that are required for applications such as the magnets described above, and other applications such as phosphors for displays, compact fluorescent light bulbs and the like. This makes sense; being reliant on a narrow band of supply, which might be subject to economic, political or other related factors, is problematic, and to mitigate against such a situation is a prudent measure.

However, in the past 12-18 months, this approach is just about the only one that has received any attention. While I, and others, have talked a little bit about the possibility of using other technologies as alternatives to those that rely on scarce elements, such talk appears to have received little traction. Perhaps it is deemed to be a distraction, and that to pay attention to it is to take one’s eye of the main game in town – the procurement of capital and resources to get the sources of supply up and running. However, I would argue that to be reliant on a narrow band of technology options, that rely on scarce materials, and which are thus also vulnerable to the supply chain, is also problematic. It is therefore most prudent to look for alternatives, as the collective “we” are doing with the raw materials themselves.

While this search for alternatives to scarce metals is only slowly gaining acceptance in the USA [if it is at all], over on the other side of the globe in Japan, this problem has been recognized for quite some time. Unlike the USA however, forces are at work in Japan to actually do something about it. In the absence of many natural resources of the type in abundance in North America, the Japanese have had no choice in this matter. The analogy of Cortez burning his ships on arrival into the New World springs to mind. In either case, there was really no alternative to pressing forward in order to get the job done.

For whatever reason, there has been very little media coverage of the Japanese approach, certainly over here in the USA. This is not a reflection, however, of a lack of information in the public domain. In July 2009, Calgary and the Canadian Academy of Engineering hosted CAETS 2009, the “18th Convocation of the International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences”. According to the CAETS 2009 Web site, this event brought together

“the wisdom and experience of engineers and technological scientists from around the world to discuss how engineering and technology can contribute to addressing the grand challenges associated with the management and sustainability of our natural resources.”

This Web site goes on to say that

“[n]ew approaches are needed to managing both our national resources and the supply chains that they feed. We need to rethink how to address the use of our natural resources and how we can ensure that the needs of humanity are fulfilled over the very long term.”

At that meeting, Professor Masafumi Maeda, Executive Vice President of the University of Tokyo, and a member of the Engineering Academy of Japan, presented a paper called “Resource Policy and New Metal Projects in Japan”. The paper contains lots of great introductory information on the impact that people and the need for resources has on the planet, the scarcity of certain metals and minerals and so on. When we get to the meat of the presentation, however, things start to get really interesting.

Professor Maeda reported that the Japanese government, realizing that Japan needed a “strategy for securing a stable supply of non-ferrous metal resources“, formed a committee that in 2006 reported back on the need to promote exploration and development with foreign countries, to promote recycling, to develop substitute materials and to develop a metal stockpile for short-term security.

As a result of the report, the Japanese government created two large research programs:

  1. “Elements Science & Technology”, overseen by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology [mercifully shortened to MEXT in its acronymic form] and
  2. “Rare Metal Substitute Materials Development Project”, overseen by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry [METI]

Each of these programs had a number of objectives, which were condensed down into groups of specific program objectives. For the Element Science & Technology program, there were a total of 12 specific objectives, which included a number of projects focuses on eliminating precious metals from catalysts for chemical energy conversion. This program also included a project for “high performance anisotropic nanocomposite permanent magnets with low rare-earth content“. The Development Project on Rare Metals Substitution had three focus areas, and included projects on the reduction and substitution of indium in transparent conducting electrodes [i.e. displays] and the reduction and substitution of tungsten in cemented carbide tools. It also included a project for “technology for reducing dysprosium usage in a rare-earth magnet“.

Not only did the Japanese government recognize the need for such programs, they recognized the need to fund them, and to fund them well. The Rare Metal Substitute Materials Development Project, covering the three areas of research mentioned above, received 1 billion Japanese yen (around US$11 million) in funding, for FY2008 alone! That particular project concludes in FY2011. Similar funding levels were available for the other projects.

Numerous research groups in Japan were the beneficiaries of the funding described above, and already the research is producing results. Interesting to me is that these groups have reached out and are collaborating with the best magnet-materials research groups in Europe, to “get the job done”. Just as important, this type of funding helps to create a whole new generation of materials scientists and related professionals, who “get” the problems and challenges involved.

Is there a lesson here? Well, certainly Japan and other Asian countries are well-known for taking the long-term view. Japan in particular, has little choice but to work on such projects, since they have so few natural resources. Can the US wake from its own slumbers on this issue, and consider doing similar work, with similar funding levels, to make things happen? It’s certainly possible… I just hope that it doesn’t require the presence of too many burning ships in the harbor, in the form of ever-tightening restrictions of supply, for the appropriate actions to be taken – not just in terms of bringing new supplies online, but also to determine new ways of using the resources to which we have access.

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