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Rare earth revolutionary

india Updated: May 30, 2010 00:17 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar
Dipankar De Sarkar
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Fears that China may end up ruling a green world have been partly rested by a technological breakthrough by an NRI scientist in the field of rare earth metals — key components of technologies that are set to shape our future. Green Necessity

Bhagalpur-born Animesh Jha, a material sciences professor at Leeds University and an alumnus of Roorkee University and Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, has isolated significant quantities of rare earth metals while refining low-grade titanium dioxide — a common mineral.

In the process, he may have soothed the jangly nerves of governments and manufacturers of leading-edge technologies around the world — in a state of uncertainty after China, which produces 95 per cent of the world’s rare earth declared last year that it was sharply reducing its exports of the metals.

Rare earths — versatile metals that are really not so rare — have come to dominate growing areas of people’s day-to-day lives around the world. From laptop hard disks, iPod headphones and mobile phone speakers to aerospace, defence, medicine, laser, superconductivity and atomic energy, rare earth metals sparkle with endless promise.

Accelerated global attempts to forge a green future too are tied to supplies of rare earth metals — they make the strongest magnets on the planet, which are then used in motors that drive wind turbines as well as hybrid cars. Every Prius hybrid electric car made by Toyota — nearly 2 million of them have been sold in the 12 years since being introduced — uses 25 kg of rare earth metals in the form of at least 200 types of magnets.

Jha’s patented process has caused a stir as it follows China’s decision, announced last May, to impose a ceiling on exports of rare earth metals in order to build up its own reserves — reportedly needed to roll out massive green technology plans.

The decision — which was also a hard-headed response to falling rare earth prices caused by the global downturn — created panic around the world and evoked a sharp protest by the United States at the World Trade Organisation. US strategic experts called for stockpiling the metals, and European climate change plans seemed endangered.

The reason for the strong response was simple: there are only 17 rare earth metals, and it is China where they are mostly found. When China tightens the screw, the world twists in pain.

“The problem is not that China wants to dominate the market,” says Doug Hadfield, editor of the US-based Resource Intelligence TV, which serves mining investors.

“China’s problem is a very practical one that concerns growth: it’s difficult to move a billion people around cities and towns without a steady supply of fuel. Since China has little oil and practically the entire global supply chain of rare earths, it makes sense for China to take the battery powered route.”

The figures for Chinese deposits vary widely. In May 2009, the state news agency Xinhua boasted, “the nation has proven rare earth reserves of 52 million tonnes, or about 58 per cent of the world’s total.” But last month the People’s Daily lowered the figure to 24 per cent in a commentary justifying the ceiling. A US government figure puts it at just over 36 per cent.

It’s not as if there are no substantial rare earth deposits elsewhere around the world: far from it. But existing US mines shut down in the mid-1980s, unable to compete with cheap Chinese exports, with the supply chain eventually moving to China. And opening new mines is a long and cumbersome process.

There are also massive environmental concerns over the way these metals have been extracted (by acid leaching) in many of the mines. Inner Mongolia, home to 75 per cent of China’s reserves, is said to resemble a desolate moonscape.

This is where Jha’s breakthrough becomes important: not only is it a potential alternative to Chinese supplies, but by removing the need to scar the earth for high grade titanium dioxide, it also offers a clean solution that chimes in with attempts to combat climate change.

Working with half a million pounds in the laboratories of the Institute for Materials Research in Leeds, Jha and his small team of researchers found that they could extract rare earth metals at the very start of the titanium dioxide refining process.

“It came out as a byproduct of our research on novel methods of extracting low-grade titanium dioxide,” said Jha. “We saw lots of rare earths when we were refining things, and I said ‘where are these rare earths going?’ It was a concern to the titanium dioxide industry — they didn’t want the rare earths.

“So we said we must track them down, and we found that we could separate them in the very front of the process after roasting low-grade titanium dioxide concentrate with alkaline, which is what our process is. We knew it from 2003 onwards but had to keep it quiet.”

Hadfield says Jha’s breakthrough “could radically alter the global rare earths industry.” Leeds University says the new process could “eventually shift the balance of power in global supply, breaking China’s near monopoly.” “This is a very encouraging development for those who want to see security of rare earth supplies,” said Nick Morley, a scientist at Oakdene Hollins, an environmental consultancy firm that advises the British government.

“Within the next three to four years, we should be able to demonstrate whether we can produce kilogrammes of rare earth from the process,” said Jha with a degree of confidence. “That would be a significant achievement.”

In his small office in Leeds, Jha displays photographs of Albert Einstein alongside numerous idols of Ganesha. “He is the God of intelligence who existed before time,” explained Jha. “But sometimes our decisions show a failure to follow that intelligence — whether it is in deep ocean oil exploration or in mining high-grade titanium.”

If Jha succeeds in scaling up his process, it could become a small but important step toward creating a sustainable world charged with Ganesha’s ‘permanent intelligence.’