Rare Earth Metals -12 Things You Didn’t Know

ideal magnet solutions knowledge base Rare earth metals 12 things you didn't know

Rare Earth Metals -What Are They Used For?

Rare Earth Metals have become very important to our high-tech economy in recent years. Many new uses have been found for rare earths and they are found both in everyday applications like mobile phones and computers and very special technologies, like anti-counterfeiting.  Rare earth metals 12 things

They occupy that part at the bottom of the Periodic Table that looks almost like a footnote. It’s the part with the longest, most unpronounceable names of elements that you probably ignored when you were in science class.

ideal magnet solutions knowledge base periodic table

This part of the periodic table is set apart at the bottom of the page-full of elements that look like they don’t belong with the more normal elements.

Rare earth metals 12 things periodic table rare earth

Nobody could blame you for ignoring elements with names like Ytterbium, Gadolinium and Praseodymium, and if you tried to find out anything about them, there would be a single sentence in your science book that basically described them as “other” metals.

If your science book said anything about them, it would be some obscure thing like what they said about Europium –it was used as a phosphor. Now what the heck is a phosphor? It’s interesting and important, but we’ll get to that later.

If you looked up Neodymium, you might learn that it is used in magnets. Years ago, such a mention would be a simple footnote.

But these days, Neodymium magnets have become a big mover and shaker in new, high-tech applications. Neodymium has achieved geopolitical importance as it has found ways to be used in a growing list of commercially-important high-tech applications.

Rare Earth Magnets Power Our Economy

Things have changed in recent years. Magnets made from rare earth metals are powering all sorts of gadgets that have become very important to our economy, and they are becoming more important for some really high-tech systems.

Rare earth metals are now used by designers to improve the efficiency and performance of many different technologies, including the magnetic technologies that power hybrid and electric vehicles, mobile phones, wind turbines, loudspeakers, robots, factory automation equipment, and aircraft controls.

Magnets made from rare earth metals have led to miniaturization of all of these systems, making components that are more compact and allowing designers to create products with form factors never before imagined.

Rare Earth Magnets in Hybrid and Electric Vehicles

ideal magnet solutions magnets in automobile

When Tesla Motors built their first two full-sized car models, they used electric induction motors to power the vehicles. These motors were based on Nikola Tesla’s original motor design – a brilliant design that preceded the invention of the rare earth magnet by almost 100 years.

Induction motors create their own magnetism with electricity. They operate without permanent magnets of any kind.

The induction motor is a fine design, but there’s a good reason Tesla Motors switched to using a Permanent Magnet motor for their Model 3 in 2017. The Model 3 is a smaller car and it needed a smaller motor that would still have plenty of power.

Tesla Motors also wanted a more efficient motor that would help them extend the range of the vehicle without adding more expensive battery capacity. The answer for Tesla was the very thing they had avoided for years –a permanent magnet motor using Neodymium magnets.

Tesla isn’t the only auto company using rare earth magnets in their automotive traction motors. In fact Tesla Motors was the only company NOT using rare earth magnets until the Model 3. Everybody else is using rare earth magnets in their motors.

Why Are Automakers Using Rare Earth Magnet Traction Motors?

Rare earth magnets are also known as NdFeB (neodymium-iron-boron) magnets, or neodymium magnets, after the principal element that creates the magnetism. NdFeB magnets are the strongest magnets made (except for superconducting magnets).

These strong magnets create more magnetic field lines in a smaller area, allowing designers to make smaller electric motors that are just as powerful as the larger motors they replaced. Electric motors made with NdFeB permanent magnets can be over 50% smaller and lighter than electric motors without permanent magnets.

This gives automotive designers (and many other designers) many more options in their designs, because now they have more room for other components and the weight savings gives them more design latitude with their other components.

These factors create a ripple effect through the entire system, allowing many components – and ultimately the entire automobile- to become smaller while performing all the functions of a larger, heavier design.

Rare Earth Elements in Cell Phones

Small NdFeB Magnets in Smartphones and Personal Electronics

If you have noticed how the mobile phone has become radically miniaturized since it was first invented, you will get an idea of how NdFeB magnets have contributed to the miniaturization of the mobile phone. It’s well-known that miniaturization of electronic circuits was a huge part of making the mobile phone smaller, but don’t forget that the magnet played its part, too.

Rare earth Neodymium-based magnets have allowed designers to create phone speakers that give excellent sound quality even though they are much smaller than speakers from just a few years ago.

The silent ring feature uses a tiny magnet –taking up an incredibly small amount of space inside the phone case, yet it has enough power to be felt –and heard- very easily.

The autofocus motor is barely noticeable, adding just a few thousandths of an inch of material around the camera lens. It is also very powerful, adjusting the focus of the lens in a fraction of a second with great precision.

Taptic feedback engines inside mobile phones give the user much-needed feedback to know when they have pressed the keys correctly. The critical element of these tiny engines is -of course- an unseen NdFeB magnet.

Phosphors - What Are They and What They Are Used For?

A phosphor is a synthetic source of luminescence. Phosphors have been used in color TV screens and cathode ray tubes (CRTs) for years. They are used in very small amounts to accentuate the color of the screen.

If you are looking at a vivid picture on a color TV it is due to the use of phosphors. Europium is great for making the color red.

Compounds of Gadolinium and Terbium are used to make yellow-green phosphors.

LED lights use combinations of phosphors to adjust the color; the naked LED doesn’t always have the right color for the application. The addition of a small amount of phosphor gives the light just the right color temperature that will be pleasing to the eye.

Rare Earth Metals are Mostly Hidden

Neodymium (NdFeB) magnets have become more and more important in our lives as technology becomes more important. But most Neodymium magnets are embedded deep inside the products we use, so we never see them.

Since our customers are counted among the many companies that use these incredible elements, we can pull back the curtain so you can see what they are doing to make our lives better.

What’s even more interesting than the products that use Rare Earth Metals are some unusual facts about these incredible elements that even many people in the industry don’t know.

Now that you’ve got some background information, here are the 12 Things You Didn't Know:

12 Things You Didn’t Know About Rare Earth Metals

  • They’re Not That Rare.  Most of the rare earth metals really aren’t that rare. Cerium (Ce) is the most abundant rare earth metal, followed by Lanthanum (La), and then Neodymium (Nd). Cerium, Lanthanum and Neodymium are all more abundant than Lead (Pb).
  • It’s actually PrNd, not Nd. Praseodymium is right next to Neodymium on the periodic table. All of the Rare Earth Elements are chemically very similar, so they are difficult to separate. But Pr and Nd are so similar that for magnets, they are practically identical. So manufacturers of neodymium magnets don’t bother to separate them. Most neodymium in magnets actually is 25-35% praseodymium, so only about 65-75% of the “neodymium” is really neodymium.
  • Neodymium magnets are comprised of approximately 65% iron (Fe). That’s right. Neodymium magnets are ferromagnetic as with most permanent magnets. The Neodymium, Iron and Boron work together synergistically to make the strongest room-temperature permanent magnet in the world.
  • When researchers discovered the NdFeB system, they experimented with Boron (“B” is for Boron) thinking it would make the composition into a soft magnet. The Boron actually ended up accentuating the permanent ferromagnetic properties this composition is known for today. 
  • High-temperature Neodymium magnets need to have Heavy Rare Earths (HRE’s) added to maintain their properties at high temperatures, but technological advances are reducing the need for HRE’s. A few magnet manufacturers –including BJMT Ideal Magnet Solutions- are using a technology called Grain Boundary Diffusion to deliver HRE’s straight to the grain boundaries where they are most useful.

Rare earth metals 12 things

Rare earth metals 12 things periodic table LREE & HREE
  • Dysprosium (Dy) and Terbium (Tb) are Heavy Rare Earth (HRE) metals used to enhance the high-temperature performance of Neodymium magnets. Dy and Tb are both rare and expensive, and they are found in very few mines outside China. As the demand for Rare Earth Magnets has increased, leading magnet manufacturers have found ways to achieve the same high-temperature performance with less HRE’s.
  • Rare earth metals are used in anti-counterfeiting industry. Notably, the fluorescence of compounds of Dysprosium, Europium and Terbium -when added in very small quantities to a legitimate product- identify that product as the genuine article. Products made without these compounds are then identifiable as counterfeit when illuminated with an ultraviolet light.
ideal magnet solutions  anticounterfeit

Photo Credit: airofy.com/solutions/anti-counterfeit.html

  • Military uses are increasing rapidly. As the military continues to add more sensors and demands higher performance and more miniaturization, more rare earths –especially rare earth magnets- are used in more systems every day.
  • It’s not so well-known in North America, but one of the biggest uses of rare earth metals in the world is in electric bicycles, known as E-bikes. Rare Earth magnets allow the design of a motor that is integrated right into the hub of the rear wheel, so it is hardly even visible, and riders get a very long range from a very small battery since the motor is so efficient.
  • Rare Earth Metals are being used more and more in wind power. Neodymium-Iron-Boron (NdFeB) magnets are commanding a bigger share of the wind power turbine market as power density requirements increase and as customers demand lower maintenance requirements and lower lifecycle costs.

    NdFeB magnets allow the use of direct drive systems that eliminate the need for a transmission, saving weight, volume and complexity in a nacelle that stands over 100 meters high. The reduction of weight and volume creates savings in many other parts of the design.
ideal magnet solutions wind power use rare earth magnets
  • The oxide of Cerium is used to polish glass and ceramic parts.  See how smooth the glass screen is on your mobile phone? You can thank cerium oxide.
  • Lanthanum compounds are used as chemical catalysts for a number of commercially important processes. They are found in some specialty kinds of glass and welding electrodes. Lanthanum is an alloying additive in steel and molybdenum.

Now You Know How Important They Are

Rare earth metals and compounds have become critically important in our high-tech world. They are in so many everyday items in our connected world that we touch and use products containing rare earth metals every day.

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