Could rare earth metals herald the ‘clean metal’ age?

An innovative US-based company may have found a revolutionary new method to convert metal oxides – particularly rare earth minerals – into cleaner types of metals that are both kinder to the bottom-line and, more importantly, for environmental sustainability.

What are rare earth minerals?

Rare earth minerals

Rare earth minerals are a group of 17 chemically similar elements that are key constituents in the manufacture of many hi-tech products. Ironically, given their name, most of them are naturally abundant in the earth's surface – albeit in a handful of locations across the globe – but it's their hazardous extraction processes that make them somewhat of a rarity.

More abundant light rare earth minerals, like lanthanum and cerium, have been used to make nickel metal hydride batteries (for electric and hybrid vehicles) and for polishing glass, metal and gemstones respectively. While rarer heavier earths include yttrium, europium and terbium (used in energy efficient fluorescent lamps and bulbs), erbium (used in lasers for medical and dental use), and dysprosium (used in the manufacture of high-strength permanent magnets).

Who are Infinium and what are they proposing?

In a recent article from the MIT Technology Review, it was reported that new start-up Infinium had found an efficient method to produce half a ton of rare earth metals annually, which could soon be scaled up to 10 metric tons a year.

“Infinium’s process addresses a specific part of metal production: transforming partially processed ores—metal oxides—into metals,” they wrote. “This can be done by immersing the oxides in a bath of molten salt and running electricity through the mixture.”

The problem with this, however, is that the electrodes needed to generate the power have traditionally been made from carbon. The ensuing reaction with oxygen forms carbon dioxide and mother earth is none too happy as a result.

Inifnium's solution? “The key advance for Infinium was developing alternative molten salts that don’t react with the zirconium oxide, so that it can last long enough to be practical,” they added. The direct results of which are a zero-emission, energy-efficient process with a minimal carbon footprint and by-products of pure oxygen and tailings.

Can this approach be applied to other metals?

Infinium’s approach can also be applied when producing other metals, like aluminium, magnesium, titanium and silicon. But, not surprisingly, the company is putting most of its efforts into rare earths because they offer much higher returns.

Aluminium production

However they claim to be able to reduce the processing costs involved in making aluminium and magnesium by as much as 30-50 percent. An alluring proposition for the automotive industry and motorists alike, with cheaper, lighter materials that could reduce fuel consumption by as much as 10 percent according to one auto industry consortium.

So what is the so-called 'Clean Metal Age?'

According to Infinium CTO and Co-Founder, Adam C. Powell: "Human history has been defined by the dominant metal of each Age. This refers to the actual elements involved, but also reflects the zeitgeist of the societies utilizing those resources that are accessible with the best available technology.

Rare metals

“We feel it's time for the 'Clean Metal Age,' to define how modern companies can leverage new breakthrough technology to bring greatest business value to customers. Companies can do this by expanding the use of metals that are critical to sustainability, while also ensuring their essential materials continue to have long-term economic and environmental viability."

For more information about clean metals please visit the Infinium website.

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