Iron-Based Chemical Could Replace Rare Earth Minerals
Rare earth minerals provide special magnetic and electrical properties that enable most modern digital gadgets. Their scarcity, and China's control of most of the world's production capacity, has led to high prices and supply insecurity. In a step that could help alleviate those problems, Japanese researchers have used common iron to create a material with the same valuable electronic properties.
Scientists have been interested in this material, called iron nitride, as a potential replacement for rare earth minerals for some time, but have failed in producing the substance in large enough quantities. According to a new report on the website TechOn, researchers from Tohoku University have succeeded in finally producing iron nitride in quantities and purities high enough for industrial use.
While this breakthrough does mark an important step in producing an alternative to rare earth minerals, it isn't quite ready for prime time. Bridging the gap between lab technique and commercial mass production of iron nitride could take a decade or more, the scientists warn, and the grains of iron nitride powder developed by the Tohoku University researchers still have the wrong shape for transformation into electronics components.
This project remains a priority for Japan, which has found itself cut off from rare earth mineral supply during disagreements with China. Japan remains even more susceptible to an embargo of these minerals than America, since Japan has no rare earth mineral reserves of its own, and hosts a robust tech sector that depends on imported minerals to stay operational.