About the blog: What Things Are Made Of


The United States relies on imports for dozens of commodities in everyday use. Often enough, that reliance is 100%. In this book I aim to provide awareness of the hidden geology and mineralogy behind common things, and to develop an appreciation for the global resource distribution that underpins our society. While concerns about oil import reliance are in the news every day, our needs for other minerals are comparable and are typically unknown even to technologically aware Americans.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Who cares about neodymium?

You should. It’s in your CDs and CD player, computer hard drive, TV tube, sunglasses, and cigarette lighter flints. It helps lasers speed communications through fiber optic networks. Neodymium magnets are critical for MRI scanning devices. Loudspeakers, headphones, guitar pick-ups, model airplanes, welder’s goggles all have some. Geologists and astronomers use neodymium and its isotopes to understand the universe around us. But as Americans become more concerned about the price of gasoline and its availability, it is in electric car motors that neodymium makes news.

A typical Prius contains two pounds of neodymium, mostly in magnets that help drive the motor. Where does it come from? Virtually all the world’s neodymium comes from one location: the Bayan Obo Mine in northern China. You can see the mine in Google Earth by searching on "Bayan Obo, Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China"—the mine is north of the city. China’s virtual monopoly—and trust me, they know what they have—on this and other rare-earth elements has some car makers worried, enough so that they’re exploring arrangements with Viet Nam and other nations that have smaller, undeveloped supplies of these critical elements.

The U.S. was once the largest producer of rare-earth elements, mostly from one mine in California’s Mojave Desert. But China’s vast reserves catapulted it into first place in 1992, and pretty much put that mine out of business in the late 1990s. The U.S. has had no primary mine production of rare earths since 2002, and imports, 87% from China, account for all our consumption today. The mine at Mountain Pass is mothballed, but prices and worries about supply are encouraging the owners to explore the idea of re-opening it.

1 comment:

rschliesman said...

Congratulations on your new blog and upcoming new book! You're a great communicator - making the jargon understandable and the topics personally relevant.