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'Alien' Metal Could Curb Need for Vital Minerals

Scientists successfully produced a metal previously only found off-planet.

The world is in a race against time to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, and rapid advances in electric vehicles, wind farms and other technologies could help wean both the electric grid and the vehicle fleet off carbon-emitting greenhouse gases. But, as with all things, there’s a catch: among other issues, these sophisticated electronic systems require materials called rare-earth metals. Although they’re not exactly rare, they are cumbersome to both extract from the Earth and to refine, and the market for them is dominated by China. 

Federal policymakers hope to speed up the process of developing a domestic supply of rare-earth metals, but those projects will take time to get up and running, and they run the risk of severely damaging the environments surrounding them.

Researchers at a pair of universities on different continents may have hit on a potential solution – they just needed to produce, from scratch, a material that doesn’t exist naturally anywhere on Earth.

NPR recently detailed the work of engineers at Northeastern University in Boston and Cambridge University in the U.K., where researchers successfully crafted a compound called tetrataenite in a lab.

Tetrataenite is tough enough to withstand extreme pressures and temperatures as a permanent magnet in advanced electronic systems, but there’s a reason it’s in such short supply: it has only been found in deposits where meteorites crashed into earth, after its nickel and iron components were cooled by millions of years spent tumbling through space.

The development of synthetic tetrataenite could not only provide a new supply of critical materials with far fewer environmental issues, but it would also mean that the U.S. wouldn’t need to rely on China nearly as much in its energy supply chain.

Scientists cautioned that further tests are still needed to make sure the lab-produced metal matches the material found off-planet, but if it does, permanent magnets made with synthetic tetrataenite could be five to eight years away if all goes well.

There’s also, however, a trade-off to that, as well: disrupting the market for rare-earth metals could affect other devices they’re used in – namely, consumer electronics and fiber optics.

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