Can Nanotechnology Provide Relief in Rare Earth Resource Squeeze?

In a recent blog entry, while complaining about the woefully slow pace of replacing the internal combustion engine with an alternative that might does us more good than harm, I referenced a recent white paper “Sustainable Technologies for the Next Decade” published by Cientifica in which it is explained that the battery technology that is targeted for a powering automobiles drains our dwindling reserves of rare minerals that are 90% controlled by China.

No sooner do I read and learn of this rather dangerous predicament than I read in the New York Times that China is planning to tighten controls on those rare minerals.

You have to hand it to China. They manage to frame their announcement of putting the squeeze on the rest of the world in such a way that it appears to be a sincere attempt to remediate some of the environmental damage they’ve done to their land from the mining of the minerals. Now that’s chutzpah.

It couldn’t possibly be an attempt to maintain pricing during a worldwide economic crisis that has at least temporarily slowed demand for everything, including rare earths? Nah.

Nonetheless, the hope is that the rest of the world will see this as a wake up call and realize that rare minerals are…well, rare. And they are controlled by a country that has recognized as a long-term strategy since at least as far back as the early 1980s that these rare earths are as important for its interests as oil has been for the Middle East.

By “wake up call” I mean an alarm that it's time to start looking for solutions. The Cientifica White Paper suggests that nanotechnology could offer these solutions:

“Through the use of nanotechnologies we can now start to develop processes that do not use rare resources, for example using carbon nanotubes and metallic nanoparticles in polymers to make them conducting rather than applying thin layers of indium tin oxide.”

That is certainly an example. However, the means by which the Cientifica paper suggests we can extend the list of examples for replacing rare earths remains a point of contention I have with it. The paper suggests, “Instead of extracting and purifying ores we can now start to think about what properties an ideal material for a specific application might be and begin to design one.”

While this comes close to the “material by design” idea that I have railed against in the past as being so far beyond our capabilities in terms of computing capacity and even understanding of physics that it can’t be considered to be possible within a timeframe that can be predicted, the paper hedges with:

“We should be clear here that the holy grail of ‘materials by design’ is some way outside the investment horizon for most institutions, but there is a half way house already available, by combining new and old materials, nanotubes and polymers for example, to create something more suitable than traditional materials.”

In any case, this is a research direction that acutely needs to be addressed, and as we’re beginning to realize we will not get technologies that help us in the way that we need unless we focus specifically on developing them.



IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain