Mar. 22, 2010 Karl A. Gschneidner Jr., a senior metallurgist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory, recently cautioned members of a Congressional panel that "rare-earth research in the USA on mineral extraction, rare-earth separation, processing of the oxides into metallic alloys and other useful forms, substitution, and recycling is virtually zero."
Rare-earth elements are critical components in the great majority of America's high-tech commercial and military products. Their vital role in our nation's economic and national security was underscored by the recent hearing of the Investigations & Oversight Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology, which was devoted entirely to the topic.
To optimize the use of rare earths in current and future products, scientists combine rare earths with other elements to create alloys intended for specific purposes. Yet the United States and other nations have ceded much of this alloying knowledge to China, Gschneidner said.
During the hearing, Gschneidner, an acknowledged leader in the field, demonstrated the benefits that added expertise in rare-earth alloying would bring the nation by holding up a neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnet, which he and his colleagues, including Rick Schmidt, principal scientist emeritus, recently created at the Ames Laboratory, using a revolutionary new process that was also developed at the Lab.
However, current methods used to manufacture the magnets produce hazardous byproducts. In contrast, the Ames Lab process eliminates production of these byproducts. Also significant, the Ames Laboratory process has the potential to enable the United States to produce neodymium-iron-boron magnets less expensively.
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