Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and partners Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Wisconsin-based Eck Industries have developed aluminum alloys that are both easier to work with and more heat tolerant than existing products.
What may be more important, however, is that the alloys—which contain cerium—have the potential to jump-start the United States’ production of rare earth elements.
ORNL scientists Zach Sims, Michael McGuire and Orlando Rios, along with colleagues from Eck, LLNL and Ames Laboratory in Iowa, discuss the technical and economic possibilities for aluminum–cerium alloys in anarticle in JOM, a publication of the Minerals, Metals & Materials Society.
The team is working as part of the Critical Materials Institute, an Energy Innovation Hub created by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and managed out of DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office. Based at Ames, the institute works to increase the availability of rare earth metals and other materials critical for U.S. energy security.
Rare earths are a group of elements critical to electronics, alternative energy and other modern technologies. Modern windmills and hybrid autos, for example, rely on strong permanent magnets made with the rare earth elements neodymium and dysprosium. Yet there is no production occurring in North America at this time.
One problem is that cerium accounts for up to half of the rare earth content of many rare earth ores, including those in the United States, and it has been difficult for rare earth producers to find a market for all of the cerium mined. The United States’ most common rare earth ore, in fact, contains three times more cerium than neodymium and 500 times more cerium than dysprosium.
Aluminum–cerium alloys promise to boost domestic rare earth mining by increasing the demand and, eventually, the value of cerium.