Garmin Ltd., the Olathe, Kan.-based maker of satellite-guided navigation equipment, says it's so far been able to work around the rising rarity of rare earths. Garmin says it's worked with suppliers to develop newer technologies to dodge cost increases.
"We are working hard to design out metals such as magnets," Garmin spokesman Ted Gartner said in an e-mail. "The customer won't notice any changes."
Yet the company avoided specifics for fear of spilling corporate secrets. And some are skeptical that the shortages are simply an engineering problem.
Consider magnet maker Thomas & Skinner Inc. of Indianapolis. It once made specialized magnets using the rare earth neodymium. But the company, which sells to aerospace and defense companies, got out in the 1990s because Chinese manufacturers were driving down prices so rapidly and had much easier access to the raw material.
Instead it makes magnets from aluminum, nickel and cobalt. They're good enough to play a role in Lockheed's air-to-surface Hellfire missiles. But it would like to get back to making neodymium iron boron magnets like those used in America's most common guided bombs. The non-rare-earth equivalent magnet is 10 times as large.
"If it was easy to swap in the different kind of magnets, people would do it. But they don't, because it's not easy," said Ed Richardson, president of Thomas & Skinner.
So his company and others are pressuring the Pentagon to develop more rare-earth sources at home, rather than rely on potential military rival China.
"So far, we're hearing nothing back," Richardson said. "It's a bad time to be asking the government to spend more."
Yet Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado introduced a bill in Congress in April that would create industry loans and speed permitting.
The planet's largest rare-earth refinery sits in Malaysia. It's been shut down by regulators concerned about the disposal of thousands of tons of low-level radioactive material.
Meantime, every Prius hybrid car requires upward of a kilogram of neodymium for magnets in its motor and battery. In early 2010 a kilogram sold for less than $10. Now, the same amount goes for more than $250.
That, in a way, only raises the stakes for what may lie under some rich Nebraska topsoil and whether the carbonatite minerals locked in bedrock are rich enough to justify mining.
"Even if things go well," said Quantum's Dickie, "with permitting and fundraising, it's going to be two, three years down the road. It could easily be five years."
The 17 rare-earth elements are scandium (Sc), yttrium (Y), lanthanum (La), cerium (Ce), praseodymium (Pr), neodymium (Nd), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), terbium (Tb), dysprosium (Dy), holmium (Ho), erbium (Er), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb) and lutetium (Lu).
World mine production of rare earths in 2010:
-- China: 130,000 tons
-- India: 2,700 tons
-- Brazil: 440 tons
-- Malaysia: 350 tons
-- U.S.: 0 tons
World rare earth reserves in 2010:
-- China: 55 million tons
-- Russia: 19 million tons
-- U.S.: 13 million tons
-- India: 3.1 million tons
-- Australia: 1.6 million tons
-- Other countries: 22 million tons
Estimated use of rare earths in the U.S. in 2009:
-- 22 percent: chemical catalysts
-- 21 percent: metallurgical applications and alloys
-- 14 percent: petroleum refining catalysts
-- 13 percent: automotive catalytic converters
-- 9 percent: glass polishing and ceramics
-- 8 percent: phosphors for computer monitors, lighting, radar, televisions and X-ray intensifying film
-- 7 percent: permanent magnets used in weaponry, wind turbines, antilock brakes, cellphones
-- 3 percent: electronics
-- 3 percent: other
Source: U.S. Geological Survey
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