Seven world transforming rare earths
Critical Minerals Alliances 2022 - September 12, 2022
Last updated 9/12/2022 at 5:36am
Magnet rare earths transform motion to energy; and energy to motion and music
While all 15 of the rare earths have special properties that have been called magical, alchemistical, and futuristic, seven of these elements are imbued with a powerful magnetism that is hard to resist when it comes to creating a high-tech future powered by clean energy.
The magnetic qualities of these rare earths – praseodymium, neodymium, samarium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, and holmium – are used to transform a summer breeze into low-carbon electricity via wind turbines, convert that energy back into whisper-quiet acceleration in electric vehicles, create the good vibrations in high-fidelity speakers small enough to fit into your ear, provide the powerful magnetic fields that allow MRI machines to create detailed images of organs and tissues, and a plethora of other modern wonders.
"Rare earth magnets are essential for U.S. economic and national security, and it is vital to our national interest that we manufacture these components at scale here at home," said Congresswoman Beth Van Duyne, R-Texas.
Roughly one-third of all the permanent rare earth magnets produced in 2020 went into wind turbines and EVs, according to a report published earlier this year by the International Renewable Energy Agency. With the number of wind turbines installed expected to double and EVs traveling global highways expected to grow by orders of magnitude by the end of the decade, low-carbon energy and transportation are expected to power massive new demand for rare earth magnets in the coming years.
"Although there are sufficient known rare earth resources to supply all the needs of the energy transition, the main challenge is to expand mining and processing activities across the entire value chain in line with demand growth," IRENA penned in its report, "Critical Materials for the Energy Transition: Rare Earth Elements."
EVs drive REE demand
Due to the sheer magnitude of the automotive sector and the speed of the planned transition from fossil fuel-burning engines to electric drives, EVs will be the primary driver of rare earth magnet demand over the coming decades.
From the speakers and microphones connected to the infotainment system to the tiny motors swishing windshield wipers and locking doors, rare earths are found throughout EVs – or any modern vehicle for that matter. The motors that power EVs from 0-60 miles per hour in under three seconds, however, typically require more than 10 times the REEs than the rest of the vehicle combined.
It is estimated that the average hybrid or plug-in EV requires between 2.5 and 11 pounds of rare earth magnets. Though this is not a lot per vehicle, it is adding up fast as global automakers phase out internal combustion engine models in exchange for more electrifying cars, trucks, and SUVs over the coming two decades.
It is estimated that roughly 30 million EVs will be sold each year by 2030, which is ten times the 3 million sold in 2020, and this number is expected to continue to climb to 82 million per year by 2040. This ramping up of electric mobility is driving enormous new demand for rare earths, especially in the neodymium-iron-boron magnets that allow traction motors to more efficiently transform electricity into acceleration.
While neodymium gets top billing, NdFeB magnets typically have at least two magnet rare earths in them.
More often than not, the neodymium in these magnets is actually a neodymium-praseodymium alloy. Found side-by-side on the periodic table, these two rare earth elements have very similar properties, are always found together in nature, and are very difficult separate. So, it is usually easier and more economical to let them stay together when making magnets.
The magnets going into EVs and wind turbines typically also have significant amounts of dysprosium or terbium added to improve performance at high temperatures. Both elements fall into the category of heavy rare earths, which are much less abundant than the light REEs such as neodymium and praseodymium.
Dysprosium, which also offers thermal stability to magnets, is the preferred heavy REE additive to EV and wind turbine magnets. However, in terms of relative abundance in the Earth's crust, dysprosium is less than 1% of all REEs.
"The world's dysprosium supply is even more constrained than the neodymium supply, and this may pose a problem for the energy transition," IRENA penned in its rare earths report.
The dysprosium problem
The EV revolution that is demanding unprecedented quantities of the powerful neodymium-praseodymium magnets made more durable with dysprosium or terbium is driving a potential rare earths supply problem.
Global strategic minerals and metals analyst Adamas Intelligence expects EVs alone to account for around 25% of global NdFeB magnet consumption by 2030, a market share that will continue to grow as more drivers trade in ICE vehicles in favor of EVs.
This has automakers scrambling to either find adequate sources of rare earths for the magnets needed for the growing lineup of electrified models or looking into motor alternatives that lessen or eliminate the need for REEs altogether.
Falling into the former camp, General Motors cut a deal to buy rare earth materials and magnets from MP Materials Corp, which owns the Mountain Pass Mine in California's Mojave Desert and is building a 200,000-square-foot REE processing and magnet facility in Texas. Upon completion, this will establish a complete rare earths mine-to-magnets supply chain in the U.S., an area that is currently dominated by China.
"The United States needs to do everything we can to end our dangerous dependence on China for rare earth elements and critical minerals across the entire supply chain," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. "It is both significant and important that MP Materials is going beyond mining and into alloying and manufacturing, and I'm deeply proud of the role Texas is playing in these projects."
The Lone Star State manufacturing plant, which is expected to begin ramping up production in 2023, will initially have the capacity to produce roughly 1,000 metric tons of finished neodymium-iron-boron magnets per year, enough for approximately 500,000 EV motors.
"We are building a resilient and sustainable EV manufacturing value chain in North America, from raw materials to cell manufacturing to electric drive motors and beyond, further accelerating GM's vision to support a mass market for EVs," said Shilpan Amin, vice president of global purchasing and supply chain at GM. "Our work with MP Materials is another bold step forward that will help ensure that we meet our goal to lead the EV industry in North America in more than just sales."
The Texas facility will also serve as the business and engineering headquarters for MP Magnetics, the company's growing magnetic division.
"MP Materials has built an exceptional magnetics team and important commercial relationships that will accelerate our mission to restore the full rare earth supply chain to the United States," said MP Materials Chairman and CEO James Litinsky.
Toward an overall strategy to ensure that it does not need to rely on China for the rare earth magnets it needs to fulfill its mission to get "everybody in" an EV, GM has also entered into a deal with Germany-based Vacuumschmelze, or VAC, to set up another U.S. factory to supply the Detroit automaker with rare earth materials and magnets.
"VAC's deep magnetic materials knowledge and extensive e-mobility technology expertise, in partnership with GM, will enable a cleaner global future for our communities," said VAC CEO Erik Eschen.
As GM focuses its efforts on securing plentiful supplies of magnet rare earths, BMW, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and other automakers are looking into lowering or even eliminating the need for these metals in their EV drive motors.
By creating magnetism with an electric current, EV drive motors can be made without rare earths. These wound rotor and induction motors, however, draw much more power from the battery pack, which means larger batteries and less range.
"Currently, NdFeB magnets are essential for optimising the power-to-weight ratio in motors and generators," according to IRENA.
A heavy REE alternative
It is not so much the potential shortages of neodymium that have automakers and wind turbine manufacturers worried. Instead, it is not having enough of the dysprosium that allows motors and generators to continue to operate efficiently at high temperatures that has engineers working overtime to come up with alternatives.
"Although heavy REEs are scarce and sourced from limited areas, production of neodymium is expected to keep pace with growing demand, even under ambitious scenarios for growth in electric machines using permanent magnets," IRENA wrote. "Where technological advances will be essential, however, is in finding substitutes for dysprosium, which is used to improve the upper-limit temperature performance of generators and traction motors using permanent magnets."
Developing REE deposits more richly endowed with the scarcer and more valuable heavy rare earths such as dysprosium is another alternative.
Round Top, an enormous rare earths deposit in Texas that is also enriched in lithium and other minerals considered critical to the U.S., happens to have a particularly enticing dysprosium-to-other rare earths ratio.
A preliminary economic assessment outlines plans for a mine at Round Top that would produce 2,212 metric tons of rare earths per year, including healthy supplies of all six permanent magnet rare earth oxides – 200 metric tons of dysprosium, 180 metric tons of neodymium, 67 metric tons of praseodymium, 65 metric tons of gadolinium, 65 metric tons of samarium, and 23 metric tons of terbium – once the mine reaches full production.
In addition, the mine summarized in the PEA would produce about 10,000 metric tons of lithium per year, which would help fill the expanding electric vehicle battery market.
Based on the current resource, the Round Top deposit is large enough to supply the REEs, lithium, and other critical minerals at this rate for more than a century.
USA Rare Earth LLC, which owns an 80% interest in Round Top, is advancing a complete rare earth mine-to-magnets supply chain that includes a mine and separation facility in Texas and a magnets plant to be developed in a 309,0000-square-foot building it recently acquired in Oklahoma.
"Currently, the United States, European Union, Japan, and much of the developed world is largely reliant on China for critical rare earth element production," said USA Rare Earth President Thayer Smith. "Our goal with this project is to advance U.S. manufacturing capacity by establishing the first vertically integrated domestic supply chain for rare earth elements, and we are excited to be working in Oklahoma."
In 2020, USA Rare Earth purchased nearly new neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnet manufacturing equipment that Hitachi Metals America briefly used at a facility in North Carolina about a decade ago. This is currently the only such sintered rare earths magnets manufacturing equipment in the western hemisphere, and it is to be installed at the company's newly purchased building.
This provides Oklahoma a firm foothold in the renewable energy and high-tech economy.
"Oklahoma has long been on the cutting edge of energy innovation, and this project embodies the energetic, forward-thinking mentality of our state," said Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt. "The USA Rare Earth project will help our state remain a leader in domestic energy production, further diversifying our economy while reducing U.S. dependence on foreign imports."
USA Rare Earths anticipates that both its Round Top critical minerals mine in Texas and Stillwater rare earths metal and magnet manufacturing plant in Oklahoma to be operational in 2023.
Heavy REEs in Alaska
The Dotson Ridge deposit at Ucore Rare Metals Inc.'s Bokan Mountain project in Alaska is also weighted with heavy rare earths and critical minerals.
According to a 2019 calculation, Dotson Ridge hosts 4.79 million metric tons of indicated resource averaging 0.6% (31,722 metric tons) rare earth oxides. Though not particularly high-grade, roughly 40% of the rare earths in this deposit are the more highly sought-after heavy REEs, including dysprosium.
This could make Bokan Mountain an intriguing deposit for automakers to look further up the supply chain to secure the raw materials required for the EV revolution.
"Today, automakers from Ford to GM to VW realize that controlling source raw materials right back to the mine could determine how many electric vehicles they will be able to make and at what cost," said Ucore Rare Metals Chairman and CEO Pat Ryan. "The further development of the Bokan Mountain Complex for long term security of rare earth oxides used in powerful electric motors presents an opportunity for deep integration of Western supply chains."
It also provides an opportunity for Alaska to become a valuable link in the global automotive and clean energy supply chains.
"Working together as a team and with our stakeholders, we can help lead the United States' concerted effort to establish an independent REE supply chain to support the transformation to EVs and renewable energy sources and ensure that high-paying family-wage jobs are generated and maintained in Southeast Alaska for decades to come," said Ucore Rare Metals Vice President and COO Mike Schrider.