Fraunhofer Faro project: «critical rare earths»

Mining rare earths in the Yunnan province in southwestern China © dpa
Mining rare earths in the Yunnan province in southwestern China ©dpa

Cell phones, laptops, electric motors and wind turbines all have one thing in common: manufacturing them is impossible without the use of rare earths.What makes these elements so sought after are the outstanding, hard-magnetic properties of the intermetallic bonds they can form with ferromagnetic elements such as iron or cobalt.
A consortium made up of seven Fraunhofer Institutes launched the Fraunhofer Faro project «critical rare earth» to demonstrate how to cut neodymium and dysprosium demand for permanent magnets in half by 2017. This presents the challenges of finding substitute materials, designing more efficient manufacturing technologies, and developing new ways of reusing or recycling electric motors.

In the Materials Substitution subproject  the research team is collaborating with materials scientists to find new materials that exhibit good magnetic characteristics comparable to those found in hard magnets made from rare earths. Here the scientists use a balance of theoretical modeling and simulation methods, and experimental melt metallurgy techniques. By carrying out systematic computational high-throughput screening and data mining, they can numerically evaluate a wide range of material combinations while at the same time analyzing their hard-magnetic properties. Similar strategies have already been successfully implemented to find new materials for batteries. Nobody is sure whether the supply of rare earths will hold out in the medium and long term. But ensuring that these raw materials remain available on the world market is far from easy, and prices have been rising steadily for years. One of the factors affecting the expansion of emerging technologies is having these prized resources available in sufficient quantities. This is why Fraunhofer researchers in the «critical rare earth»
Faro project are working on technologies to process rare earths more efficiently, reuse them or to find suitable substitutes. For more information