November 2014

Rare Earth Elements

Fit for service

By Ian London

Rare metals, which include rare earth elements (REEs), are widely used in the aerospace and defence sectors. As such, access to these metals is of great importance to defence-minded organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Science and Technology Organization of NATO recently hosted a two-and-a-half-day meeting of international specialists under the banner Scarcity of Rare Earth Materials and Electric Power Systems. Securing access to a stable supply of rare metals is a matter of global security.

These metals, typically used in alloy form, lend their unique chemical and physical properties to enable fast, energy-efficient flight with low-maintenance costs, minimal environmental impact and high functionality. These materials are used in avionic and computer electronics currently employed in aerospace technology and continue to allow for lighter yet stronger airframes and propulsion systems. Canada, with numerous advanced REE projects throughout the country as well as processing potential, could provide a viable supply of rare metals in the coming years.

Electronic displays are now widely incorporated in all technologies. In the modern cockpit of an airplane, colourful digital displays are linked to weather radar, fuel flow meters, artificial horizons and auto-pilots which are activated or programmed by pressure-sensitive touch pads enabled by the rare metal indium. Germanium arsenide, gallium arsenide or hafnium can be found in computer chips that take over the navigation functions and, in turn, communicate with global positioning satellites. Beryllium-copper connectors are found in fly-by-wire controls that operate rare earth efficient motors for the ailerons, elevons, elevators, flaps, slots and rudders that surround the pilot.

Many of the propulsive technologies in the aerospace sector also rely on rare metals as do the lightweight aircraft starter motors, fuel pumps, hydraulic pumps, and actuator and linear motors peripheral to these engines. Turbojets and fanjets employ the rare metals tantalum (melting temperature 3017 C), niobium (melting temperature 2477 C), and rhenium (melting temperature 3186 C) in their “hot sections.” These rare metals withstand the worst of the high temperatures used to compress, ignite, heat and expand the gas stream that provides the thrust.

REEs are already a key additive in the liquid fuel production process, with catalysts being the single largest demand for rare earth oxides. As an ingredient in fuel cracking catalysts (FCCs), lanthanum, cerium and neodymium improve the yield of the final product generated from crude oil, prevent the early deactivation of the catalyst and remove heavy metals. Adding lanthanum to an FCC can increase the yield of gasoline by up to 10 per cent, a significant advantage for end users. Perhaps lesser known is that in 2012, the U.S. Department of Defence alone purchased 104 million barrels of liquid fuels at a cost of $16.4 billion. The air force consumed 54 per cent of the 104 million barrels, the navy 30 per cent and 15 per cent went to fuel the army.

Individual soldiers also benefit from REEs on longer missions. The charge density of lithium-ion batteries and the efficiency of neodymium supermagnets lend themselves well to their tasks. The average marine on patrol carries 90 pounds of equipment, a third of which are batteries. Flexible lithium-ion batteries paired with flexible indium, gallium, germanium, selenium or tellurium solar panels and printed circuits of gallium, indium alloys would essentially allow the uniforms of service people to be wearable power plants. Better weight distribution would decrease strain on the carrier, while solar power would allow the various monitors, sensors and displays carried by modern soldiers to be powered directly while the sun shines with a battery ready to take over when the sun sets or in low-light conditions. Magnesium, a critical metal for the European Community, can also be used to generate power from urine.

NATO and its allies are currently taking a greater interest in these important raw, semi-processed and fully processed material supply chains. Luckily, Canada is poised to provide a steady supply of rare metals.

Ian London
Ian London is the chairman of CREEN and was instrumental in its formation in mid-2013. He is also market development and Metals Inc. Over his 40-year career, he has served as president and CEO of Ontario Hydro International, CEO of Process Products Ltd., and on the boards of several technology and alternative energy companies. Ian chaired the Rare Earth Symposium at COM 12 and COM 13.

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