Friday, July 15, 2016

Element of the Month: Dysprosium!

July's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 162.5 amu
Melting Point: 1407 °C
Boiling Point: 2562 °C

Dysprosium is among the chemical elements with names that are the most fun to say out loud. Go ahead, try it!

It is also one of the rare earth elements. We’ve talked about those a lot, so let’s recap some of the basics:
  • Rare Earth elements aren’t really rare per se, they’re just very reactive. That means that they never appear in their pure state in nature. They appear in mineral compounds, often with other rare earths, but never in high concentrations.
  • Because they are kind of hidden in plain sight, the rare earths took a long time for the science guys to pin down. It wasn’t until 1878 that the immortal Paul Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran (who also had Gallium and Samarium on his resume, the old overachiever) was able to laboriously squeeze a little bit of Dysprosium out of Erbium ore. Nobody was able to isolate larger samples until a method was worked out in the 1950s at Iowa State.
  • Like most of the rare earth elements, Dysprosium is pretty much mined only in China for the time being.
  • In a possibly not unrelated development, there was an enormous spike in the price of rare earth elements a few years back. Dysprosium was being priced in 2011 at about twenty times what it had sold for in 2003.

Now, when you read about Dysprosium online, you’re going to find two schools of thought. One is “OMG WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF RARE EARTH ELEMENTS WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO.” The other is “Eh, rare earth elements, not good for much except a few specialized industrial applications. Let’s talk about more interesting elements.”

Here’s what I think is going on. First, the main reason to get fired up about rare earths, from a human-use point of view, is their magnetic properties. Dysprosium, for instance, is apparently tied with Holmium for Most Magnetic Element under certain conditions. Now, if you remember that magnetism is used in both electrical generators and electrical motors, it might occur to you that more powerful magnets would mean more efficient power systems. It has certainly occurred to some of our brainy engineering guys. So yeah, rare earths are confined to “specialized industrial applications,” but potentially really important ones.

It’s true that the supply of Dysprosium and other rare earth elements is having a hard time keeping up with supply. But the more panicky commentary on the situation is probably driven by people who are hoping they can trick you into some naïve dabbling in the minerals market. Because almost anything you can do with rare earths, you can already do without ‘em. For instance, Toyota was thinking of using a rare earths based system in its little RAV 4 SUVs, but because the supply of rare earths is so erratic and subject to the whim of a single government, they decided not to. And yet, they’re still making RAV 4s that work just fine.

The Centerfold!

You have to figure that if humankind collectively decides it really needs Dysprosium and its cousins badly enough, somebody will fire up a mine in Australia, Quebec, Texas, Alaska, or Wyoming, or any of the many other places where you can find rare earths. In fact, companies are messing around in all of those places, the only little issue being that hard rock mining is a brutally, brutally difficult industry to in which to eke out a profit. That makes launching a new operation to produce minerals that, who knows, might come in handy if certain speculative technologies continue to evolve, kind of a tough pitch for investors who are more interested in their guaranteed 5% per year.

Dysprosium is apparently one of the rarer rare earth elements, so it has a tricksy economic twist all its own. To produce a certain amount of Dysprosium, you inevitably end up producing a much greater amount of other rare earth elements, including Cerium – remember, the rare earths tend to herd together. So, if you’re mining enough Dysprosium to make a nice profit, you’re also mining so much Cerium that you’re tanking what little market there was for Cerium in the first place, and trying to figure out where you’re going to store the stuff and how much it will cost.  It's almost like a disincentive to mine Dysprosium!  No, wait.  It is a disincentive to mine Dysprosium.

This is undoubtedly a distorted view of Dysprosium economics, but I think I’m more or less on the right track with it. Disclaimer: Element of the Month write-ups are not intended to be used as investment advice, ya knucklehead. But you already knew that.


Morgan said...

Disclaimer came too late: I already put my life savings into Dysprosium.

Michael5000 said...

Stay tuned for next week's guest post by Morgan: "The Looming Dysprosium Crisis: What Will it Mean for the Economy When Supplies Hit Bottom?"