China’s monopoly over the global rare earth metal market is a consistent thorn in the side of the United States and other nations that share its interests. As the world transitions to renewable energy over the next few decades, experts worry that China’s dominance in the key rare earth metals supply chain will grant it unprecedented leverage over the U.S., its largest rival. Interestingly, a mineral that typically occurs in space may be the key to weaning the U.S. off of China and achieving some semblance of independence in the rare earth metal market.
Cambridge University Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy professor Linday Greer said in a 2022 statement that the environmental impact of rare earth mining coupled with the proliferation of Chinese companies in the supply chain shows the urgent need for an alternate raw material to rare earth metals. Greer and her colleagues turned to an iron-nickel alloy called tetrataenite that shares many similar magnetic properties to rare earth metals. It typically occurs in meteorites as they cool for hundreds of years, and the cosmic mineral enters the earth via falling meteorites.
Scientists developed artificial tetrataenite in the 1960s via a complex and expensive process that involves blasting neurons at iron-nickel alloys. Last year, Greer and her research team created a simple technique for mass-producing the mineral in massive quantities by combining nickel, iron and phosphorus in just the right way. While the research shows that there are simple and cost-effective ways of mass-producing tetradentate, further studies are necessary to determine if the process can produce tetrataenite with the magnetic properties required by renewable energy infrastructure.
Most countries agree that the key to addressing the climate change crisis is phasing out fossil fuels such as coal and oil and replacing those fuels with environmentally friendly energy sources. This will require a transition to technologies that run on clean energy and produce zero emissions, such as electric vehicles.
The caveat is that EV batteries, renewable energy technologies such as solar energy and a myriad of high-tech electrical appliances require rare earth minerals as raw materials. While rare earth metals aren’t that rare in terms of actual deposits, the complexities involved in mining and processing them mean very few countries can produce them in large quantities.
Rare earth metals occur scattered across the planet’s crust in relatively low concentrations, increasing the difficulty of mining and the risk of environmental damage. The process of separating rare earth metals from radioactive elements is incredibly complex and requires specialized expertise and technologies that few countries have.
As scientists study the possibility of commercializing cosmic minerals, extraction companies such as Ucore Rare Metals Inc. (TSX.V: UCU) (OTCQX: UURAF) are focused on availing terrestrial rare metals to meet the growing demand for these minerals as the energy transition gathers steam.
NOTE TO INVESTORS: The latest news and updates relating to Ucore Rare Metals Inc. (TSX.V: UCU) (OTCQX: UURAF) are available in the company’s newsroom at http://ibn.fm/UURAF
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