Feeds

China's doomed attempt to hold the world to ransom

Or why your job won't be following the rare earth trail

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

The Chinese government is trying to corner the rare earths market and that isn't good news for the tech business. Those with good memories of Chemistry O Level will know what the rare earths are: the funny little line of elements from Lanthanum to Lutetium at the bottom of the periodic table, along with Yttrium and Scandium, which we usually add to the list.

The reason we like them in the tech business is because they're what enables us to make a lot of this tech stuff that is the business. You can't run fibre optic cables without your Erbium repeaters, Europium, Terbium and Yttrium are all used to make the coloured dots in CRTs, the lens on your camera phone is 25 per cent Lanthanum oxide (yes, really, glass is made of metal oxides) and without Neodimium and Dysprosium we'd not have permanent magnets: no hard drives nor iPod headphones.

Those last two we could make out of Samarium, but that's another rare earth, and in the absence of that we'd have to go back to AlNiCo which is what PDP 11 drives used. 20 kilos for a few megabytes of storage and a right bugger to plug in your ear.

The reason we like the rare earths so much for all of these things is that while they're all chemically very similar, they have very different reactions to things like light, electricity and magnetism. For example, Lutetium is magneto-electric, meaning that a change in a magnetic field will produce a change in current: just as piezo-electric materials produce a change in response to a change in mechanical stress.

That is very useful if you want to convert changes in a magnetic field into variations in current, which you can then use to drive a cathode ray tube. We do that in an MRI machine, which is why at the heart of one is a great big Lutetium oxide crystal. Your fact of the day is that of around 2,200 kg of lutetium used globally a year, 2,000 kg is used at one factory in Texas to make those crystals.

The chemical similarity comes from them all having the same number of electrons in their outer shell: chemistry is really all about electrons in the outer shell. The differences come from the different numbers of electrons in the inner shells and of protons and neutrons in the nucleus. That's what gives us all the interesting properties which the electronics and tech industries exploit. Indeed, they are what make many of the things the industries do possible at all.

As you would predict, given very similar chemistries you never actually find these elements alone. They're always all there in varying proportions. Minerals like Monazite and Bentonite are the usual sources but to get just the Lutetium out, for example, you end up having to purify them all out.

Rare Earth Metals

Some rare earth metals, yesterday

In fact, this is how some of the rarer ones were discovered in the first place. Bash up your ore in acid and pour it into a long column of crushed stone (think calcium carbonate here). As the different elements have different atomic weights, they will go further down the column and, by chance, they also have different colours at this stage. You end up with something that looks like a straw made of rock with different colour bands in it. Each band is one of the rare earths.

The longer you make your column the more bands you'll get: big wide ones for relatively common elements like Yttrium and Lanthanum, very narrow ones for rarities like Lutetium. The last few rare earths were found by doing exactly this - making the columns longer and counting the number of coloured bands. Now chop up your straw along the dividing lines and dissolve away the rock and you've successfully separated them all.

Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile

More from The Register

next story
FORGET the CLIMATE: FATTIES are a MUCH BIGGER problem - study
Fat guy? Drink or smoke? You're worse than a TERRORIST
Renewable energy 'simply WON'T WORK': Top Google engineers
Windmills, solar, tidal - all a 'false hope', say Stanford PhDs
Rosetta probot drilling DENIED: Philae has its 'LEG in the AIR'
NOT best position for scientific fulfillment
SEX BEAST SEALS may be egging each other on to ATTACK PENGUINS
Boffin: 'I think the behaviour is increasing in frequency'
HUMAN DNA 'will be FOUND ON MOON' – rocking boffin Brian Cox
Crowdfund plan to stimulate Blighty's space programme
Post-pub nosh neckfiller: The MIGHTY Scotch egg
Off to the boozer? This delicacy might help mitigate the effects
I'M SO SORRY, sobs Rosetta Brit boffin in 'sexist' sexy shirt storm
'He is just being himself' says proud mum of larger-than-life physicist
NASA launches new climate model at SC14
75 days of supercomputing later ...
LIFE, JIM? Comet probot lander found 'ORGANICS' on far-off iceball
That's it for God, then – if Comet 67P has got complex molecules
prev story

Whitepapers

Choosing cloud Backup services
Demystify how you can address your data protection needs in your small- to medium-sized business and select the best online backup service to meet your needs.
Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
The hidden costs of self-signed SSL certificates
Exploring the true TCO for self-signed SSL certificates, including a side-by-side comparison of a self-signed architecture versus working with a third-party SSL vendor.
Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile
Data demand and the rise of virtualization is challenging IT teams to deliver storage performance, scalability and capacity that can keep up, while maximizing efficiency.