In the fast-moving world of transportation, everything from minivans to drones benefits from the inclusion of rare earth elements. The benefits range from better fuel efficiency to pollution reduction.
The automotive industry depends on rare earth elements to facilitate the development of more fuel efficient vehicles. The market for more fuel efficient transportation has revved up considerably over recent years due in large part, to advances in the applications of these elements. For example, it is estimated that the average hybrid car contains around 61 pounds of rare earth metals. Rare earth elements (REEs) are incorporated into hybrid vehicles in three primary uses:
- Catalysts to reduce emissions and control particulate matter
The development of a new generation of environmentally-friendly cars hinges on the power of the batteries they contain—and the power of these batteries hinges on REEs. Both lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries contain the rare earth elements lanthanum and neodymium, as well as an alloy of rare earth metals, mischmetal. These REEs offer greater power and are economically feasible compared to petrol-based transportation.
The elements are also essential to the magnets on which today’s cars rely. Eighty percent of the rare earth content in cars can be found in magnets—of which it has been estimated there are an average of 150 in modern automobiles. REEs possess magnetic qualities distinct from other elements, and, as such, are indispensable ingredients in the creation of numerous alloys. REEs are also found in the electric traction motor and regenerative braking system.
In addition to the structural components of hybrid cars, REEs are used to ensure that these cars run as efficiently and are environmentally friendly. REEs such as cerium are employed in the car’s catalytic converter to reduce pollution. Such converters catalyze redox reactions, converting pollutants in exhaust gas into non-toxic compounds. REEs on the surface of these converters play a critical role in catalyzing the reaction that converts carbon monoxide and ozone to carbon dioxide and oxygen. REEs also enable this reaction to take place at relatively high temperatures.
And of course, rare earth element-based vehicles also help the automotive industry to reduce its carbon footprint by lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing refueling costs for consumers. Rare earths do this by powering hybrid vehicles.
The aviation industry relies on REEs to produce laser and resolution technologies for aircraft, as well as the metals found in their engines. The addition of rare-earth metals into magnesium alloys can be used for many parts of jet engines. These alloys have excellent heat resistance properties, high fatigue strength and are suitable for quality aviation castings from rockets to helicopter structural materials.
Rare-earth sulfides can help create high melting point substances which can be used to make jet aircraft and rocket part materials.
Have you ever enjoyed a beautiful view from a plane window? Glass with rare-earth compounds added in makes a special type of glass which can pass through infrared rays, absorb ultraviolet rays and resist x-ray and gamma-ray radiation.
REEs are also an important part of the future of aviation. Yttrium-iron garnets are used in the microwave electronically controlled instruments of unmanned aircraft, also known as drones.
The application of REEs has heralded a new dawn in high speed rail transport, too.
REEs are integral to the development of magnetic levitation, or Maglev, trains—a system of transport wherein a train is suspended and propelled by magnetic fields. In particular, scandium and yttrium have contributed to this technology.