By Karl A. Gschneidner, Jr., Senior Metallurgist • Ames Laboratory, US Department of Energy
The rare earth crisis slowly evolved during a 10 to 15 year period beginning in the mid-1980s, when the Chinese began to export mixed rare earth concentrates. In the early 1990s, they started to move up the supply chain and began to export the individual rare earth oxides and metals. By the late 1990s the Chinese exported higher value products, such as magnets, phosphors, polishing compounds, catalysts; and in the 21st century they supplied finished products including electric motors, computers, batteries, liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), TVs and monitors, mobile phones, iPods and compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) light bulbs. As they moved to higher value products, the Chinese slowly drove the various industrial producers and commercial enterprises in the US, Europe and Japan out of business by manipulating the rare earth commodity prices. Because of this, the technically trained rare earth engineers and scientists who worked in areas from mining to separations, to processing to production, to manufacturing of semi-finished and final products, were laid-off and moved to other fields or they retired.
However, in the past year the Chinese have changed their philosophy of the 1970s and 1980s of forming a rare earth cartel to control the rare earth markets to one in which they will no longer supply the rest of the world (ROW) with their precious rare earths, but instead will use them internally to meet the growing demand as the Chinese standard of living increases. To this end, they have implemented and occasionally increased export restrictions and added an export tariff on many of the high demand rare earth elements. Now the ROW is quickly trying to start up rare earth mines, e.g. Molycorp Minerals in the US and Lynas Corp. in Australia, to cover this shortfall in the worldwide market, but it will take about five years for the supply to meet the demand, even as other mines in the ROW become productive.
Unfortunately, today there is a serious lack of technically trained personnel to bring the entire rare earth industry, from mining to original equipment manufacturers (OEM), up to full speed in the next few years. Accompanying this decline in technical expertise, innovation and new products utilizing rare earth elements has slowed dramatically, and it may take a decade or more to recapture America’s leading role in technological advancements of rare earth containing products. Before the disruption of the US rare earth industry, about 25,000 people were employed in all aspects of the industry from mining to OEM. Today, only about 1,500 people are employed in these fields. The ratio of non-technically trained persons to those with college degrees in the sciences or engineering varies from about 8 to 1 to about 4 to 1, depending on the particular area of the industry. Assuming an average of 6 to 1, the number of college degree scientists and engineers has decreased from about 4,000 to 250 employed today. In the magnetic industry the approximate numbers are: 6,000 total with 750 technically trained people in the 1980s to 500 totally employed today of which 75 have degrees.
The paucity of scientists and engineers with experience and/or training in the various aspects of production and commercialization of the rare earths is a serious limitation to the ability of the US to satisfy its own needs for materials and technologies (1) to maintain our military strength and posture, (2) to assume leadership in critical energy technologies, and (3) to bring new consumer products to the marketplace. The lack of experts is of even greater national importance than the halting in the 1990s and the recent restart of the mining/benification/separation effort in the US; and thus governmental intervention and support for at least five to 10 years will be required to ameliorate this situation. To respond quickly, training programs should be established in conjunction with a national research center at an educational institution with a long tradition in multiple areas of rare earth and other critical elements research and technology. This center should form close affiliations with other universities, governmental laboratories and non-profit research organizations having complementary strengths. In addition, single investigators or small teams of rare earthers at other universities should be supported by the usual grants from NSF, DOD and DOE. These investigators may or may not be affiliated with the center.
The national research center would not only be responsible for training undergraduate, graduate, post-doctoral students, but would also provide short courses for industry personnel and other interested persons, hold an annual meeting highlighting rare earth research being carried out at the center and affiliated organizations, and provide information about rare earth activities and developments (research, industry and commerce) via a newsletter and other means. The center would also coordinate its activities with REITA (the Rare Earth Industry and Technology Association) and other industrial or trade groups such as US Magnet Manufacturers Association.
Initially, a total of about 170 trained people having Ph.D., M.S. and B.S. degrees are required per year for the first four years to quickly catch-up to fill the present void of technically trained and skilled personnel over the whole spectrum of rare earth commerce from the mines to OEMs. Following this, about 50 professionals per year with a solid background in the fundamentals of chemistry, materials science, physics and various engineering disciplines, along with some knowledge of rare earth science and technology are needed to maintain the normal growth of the field. The number of graduating students required at the beginning of the value-added chain (i.e. geology, mining, benefication) to satisfy the industry requirements is small because currently there is only one operating mine in the US, but several more mines will become operational in the US and Canada within the next five years. As one moves up the chain, significantly more professionals are needed. In the separation and the processing fields (the latter includes metal preparation, magnet scrap recovery, recycling and ceramics) about two to three times more students will be in demand. In the next higher step up the ladder of the value chain another increase of about twice as many highly educated scientists and engineers are needed. These include physical, inorganic and organic chemists; chemical and metallurgical engineers; physical metallurgists; condensed matter physicists; and electrical, mechanical and industrial engineers. These experts would be involved with magnetic and electronic materials, phosphors, lighting, optical displays, catalysis, batteries, oxidation and corrosion and recycling. As rare earth related industries expand in the US, significant job creation in supporting areas such as logistics, manufacturing technology and business administration is to be expected. In addition, jobs such as production workers, tradesmen, technicians, and support and administrative staff, will result from this expansion of the rare earth intellectual infrastructure.
Personnel Needs from the Mine to OEM
The number of students required per year is given in parenthesis.
- Exploration and evaluation of ore sources: basnesite, monazite (one to two)
- Mining and benification of an ore body: mixed rare earth concentrate (two to four)
- Separation processing: individual rare earth oxides or carbonates, halides (four to six)
- Production of metals and starting chemical compounds for magnets, batteries catalysts, phosphors, pigments, electronic materials, glasses and ceramics, polishing compounds, metal alloys (10 to 15)
- Manufacturing of semi-finished products for OEMs: neodymium metal for magnets; lanthanum for nickel- metal hydride batteries; vanadates for phosphors; garnets for lasers; etc. (15 to 25)
- Original equipment manufacturer (OEM): magnets for electric motors, computers, wind turbines, iPods; batteries for hybrid and electrical automobiles; color TVs and monitors; three-way catalytic converters; laser containing devices, etc. (25 to 50)
The number of B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. scientists and engineers to be trained per year for the above six categories increases as one moves down the list from category one to category six. A total of about 60 to about 100 students need to graduate each year to maintain the scientific and engineering person-power requirements of the entire rare earth industry from mining to OEM. These numbers include most engineering disciplines (primarily mining, chemical, materials, electrical, mechanical) and the hard sciences – chemistry, materials science and physics.
One of the problems in the US at the present time is that the number of US trained science and engineering undergraduate students going on for advanced degrees (M.S. and Ph.D.) is quite small, and there is an insufficient number to fill all of the available teaching and research positions at universities. This lack of students is filled by hiring well trained foreign undergraduate students from third world countries such as China and India. In order to encourage US students to become involved, a rare-earth graduate scholarship (RGS) program should be initiated. It would provide $10,000 per year over and above the normal stipend a student receives from a university for two years for a M.S. student, or for four years for a Ph.D. student, assuming the student is making reasonable progress toward his/her degree. When a student completes his/her studies and graduates with the M.S. or Ph.D. they would receive an additional bonus of $5,000 for the M.S. and $10,000 for the Ph.D. ($5,000 if he or she obtained a M.S. degree first and received the $5,000 M.S. degree bonus). There should be 20 such scholarships per year. The cost would be $200,000 for the first year, $400,000 and $600,000 for the second and third years, respectively, and $1 million for the fourth (because of the bonuses) and succeeding years. The scholarships would be limited to students who are US citizens or a foreign student holding a green card. The scholarships would be administered by the national research center, but would be available to any bona fide student carrying out research on a topic involving rare earths at a US university, i.e. the RGSs would not be limited to students affiliated with the center.
The present rare earth crisis will be ameliorated within five to 10 years as US mining companies come to full production; and if US government loan guarantees to manufacturers of rare earth products are implemented to assist starting up new companies and helping existing companies to expand; and if educational resources are provided by the US to fund a national research center and rare earth research projects at universities, non-profit research organizations and governmental laboratories, and if rare earth research scholarships are made available for graduate students. Supplies of rare earths will be tight for the next three or four years, but they will gradually improve in between 2014 and 2018.
About the Author
Karl A. Gschneidner, Jr. is the Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Iowa State University and a Senior Metallurgist for the US Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory. He specializes in the magnetic, electrical and thermal behaviors of rare earth materials as functions of temperature (1 to 360 K) and magnetic field (0.1 to 100 kOe). He is also involved in the preparation of rare earth materials for physical properties studies, and has several patents involved with the manufacture of rare earth intermetallic compounds. In 2007, Dr. Gschneidner was elected to the National Academy of Engineering as a member, cited for contributions to the science and technology of rare-earth materials.
Published in Spring 2011 Issue