June 12, 2014 – A company spun out of research at Boston University in Massachusetts is about to enter the commercial market with two rare earth metals, neodymium and dysprosium. These are important ingredients in the magnets used by wind turbines and electric vehicles.
Rare earth production used to almost exclusively come from China. In 2010 that country began limiting its exports because of a South China Sea quarrel it was having with Japan and other South Asian neighbours. But the export restrictions with attendant rising prices has stimulated innovation in the field with rare earth recycling programs and companies like Infinium beginning to fulfill the gap caused by growing demand. In 2010 China produced 95% of all rare earth metals on the planet. Today that number is down to 80% and falling.
Why are rare earth metals so important in the 21st century? They are key ingredients in the quest to reduce our global carbon footprint through development of renewable energy and non-fossil fuel burning transportation options.
Infinium’s process involves immersing metal oxides in proprietary molten salts. The company uses a ceramic electrode containing zirconium oxide from which it runs a current through the molten salts. Using current production processes the company plans to expand its current capacity from one-half ton to 10 metric tons of rare earth metals per year.
The technology can also be used to produce aluminum, magnesium, titanium and silicon with production for the first two slated to begin in 2016.
Besides the proprietary molten salts, what makes the Infinium process attractive? The manufacturing process produces no carbon emissions, a common problem in the refining of metals. And the ability to manufacture rare earths using the process means a great deal to humanity in its quest to meet energy demand while replacing technologies that today are contributing to anthropomorphic climate change.