Vital elements under the microscope
Rare earths – what they are and what they are used for – will be the subject of a public lecture by a James Cook University academic this week.
“Without them 21st century life, as we know it, would not exist,” JCU’s Professor Peter Junk said today.
Professor Junk will present The Not-So-Rare Earths as his Professorial Inaugural Lecture on Wednesday, hosted by JCU’s Faculty of Medicine, Health & Molecular Sciences.
Professor Junk said rare earths are the 17 elements from the periodic table that are unknown to most people, but widely replied-upon.
“They are used in hybrid vehicles, smart phones, lasers, baseball bats and bike frames, medical imaging, catalytic converters in vehicles, fuel additives, energy efficient fluorescent lamps and military uses, among others,” he said.
Their properties impart special magnetic, optical and strength characteristics to materials.
Professor Junk said rare earths were discovered 200 years ago mainly in Scandinavia, and did not have many uses until the electronic age, hence their obscurity.
“China is now the main producer – 97 per cent – of the world’s rare earths from deposits found in Inner Mongolia,” he said.
“They are not really rare, with the rarest being more than 200 times abundant than gold, but they are not found in concentrated deposits, rather they are scattered everywhere.”
“If we didn’t have them, no-one would have a smart phone, we wouldn’t have miniature earphones, LEDs would not be bright, wind turbines in wind powered generators would not work well, MRI tests would not work.”
Professor Junk said Australia had large rare earth reserves and so was well placed to provide a reliable source of supply.
“There is one operating mine in Mt Weld in Western Australia, with two more planned, one in NT and another near Dubbo in NSW. There are rare earths everywhere in Australia, it’s just they’re not concentrated enough in most areas to mine economically. “
Professor Junk said his presentation would highlight applications of the rare earth elements, some of the fundamental chemistry of these metals, and some applied research being performed at JCU in the discipline of Chemistry.
Issued: 27 May 2013