Japanese researchers at the Kyoto University have broken the rare earth import jinx as they have created a new alloy which resembles rare metal palladium, bringing a sigh of relief to countries depending on Chinese exports of rare earth metals.
Japanese daily Yomiuri reported that researchers at the Kyoto University used a technique to create ultramicroscopic metal particles of rhodium and silver - metals that do not combine easily and remain segregated like oil and water. The researchers then converted the particles into a mist and mingled the rhodium and silver particles to create particles of the new alloy which has similar properties as palladium. According to Prof. Horoshi Kitagawa each particle is 10 nanometers in diameter.
Prof. Kitagawa explained that probably the orbits of the electrons in the rhodium and silver atoms got mixed together thus resulting in the new alloy. However, he further stated that commercially producing the new alloy will be difficult but the process can be used to develop alternative rare earth alloys.
Bloomberg reported that currently the global demand for rare-earth stood at 55,000 to 60,000 tons for the year 2010 and that China would export close to 23,000 to 24,000 tons of rare-earth. China is the major exporter accounting for 90 percent of the global supplies.
In October New York Times had reported that China had halted some shipments to the U.S. in a fallout of Washington's probe into alleged Chinese subsidies for its green technology sector, a report which China denied. Also there were reports that China had blocked rare earths exports to Japan following a diplomatic stand-off which resulted from Japan's arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain near the disputed Senkaku Islands in September.
China has used its monopoly over the rare-earth metals by further restricting the supplies cutting the first-half export quota by 35 percent after cutting 72 percent in the second half of 2010.
Bloomberg reported today that Molycorp Inc, the owner of the largest rare-earth mine outside of China, may double its production to meet global demand. Recently, Molycorp entered into a joint venture with Japan's Hitachi Metals Ltd. in order to guarantee supply of rare earths and thereby reduce dependence on Chinese imports. Also, Japan's Sumitomo Corp. agreed to give $130 million to Molycorp to arrange a seven-year supply of the materials.
Rare earths are indispensable for high-tech industries and are heavily in demand in defense systems, electric cars, wind generators, hard-disk drives, mobile communication, missile guidance and the like. The 17 rare earth elements are lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, scandium and yttrium.
With Japan and South Korea listed as major importers specifically the news of the development of a new alloy could help it to escape China's monopoly and the diplomatic glitch which pitched the nations against each other in September over the Chinese fishing incident.