Hunting the Elements
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Rare Earth part 4 (for more see Nova or PBS): DAVID POGUE: Apparently, my rocks are neo free.
But there was some good news. The ore I brought in contained a whopping 20 percent rare earth oxide.
Molycorp may soon be able to take a big bite out of China's near-monopoly...
PAUL CANFIELD: This is a rare earth magnet. This is actually neodymium, iron and boron. This is about 150 grams of the world's highest purity neodymium.
DAVID POGUE: Neodymium magnets are a bit of a misnomer. They're really iron magnets, with a pinch of neodymium added like a powerful spice to make them stronger, plus a few boron atoms to help hold everything in place.
You grow these? You don't dig these out of the ore, somehow?
PAUL CANFIELD: No, no, no. These don't exist in nature. These are things that we have to combine and cook, in the same way that huevos rancheros doesn't exist in nature; it has to be put together.
Rare Earth part 3: The truth is rare earths are not rare. They're just notoriously hard to separate. The problem is at an atomic level, the rare earth elements all look weirdly alike.
Moving from element to element, along a row of the periodic table, adds a proton to the nucleus and an electron to the outer shell, but in the rare earths, the new electron disappears into an unfilled inner shell. The result? Fifteen atoms that all have identical outer electron shells, making them virtually indistinguishable chemically.
But what about my rocks?
LARRY JONES: Okay, David, the ore that you brought us, the rocks that look like this, we analyzed those, and this is what we found: we found major components of cerium, lanthanum and praseodymium, but no neodymium.
Rare Earth part 2:
DAVID POGUE: I thought if we brought it here to Ames Lab, I thought you could do a little chemical analysis on it and tell me.
LARRY JONES: We certainly can.
Well, let's see.
DAVID POGUE: Yeah, watch out with that…
LARRY JONES: We'll take your favorite one and…
DAVID POGUE: Watch out with the hammer. What are you…?
LARRY JONES: See? Oh, yeah, there we go. That's a good piece right there. That's all we're going to need for the chemical analysis, so the rest of this we'll just…
DAVID POGUE: Yeah, but…
LARRY JONES: …throw it right here, in the trash.
DAVID POGUE: But, but that's, that's rare ear-, ah! California!
on rare earth part 1: DAVID POGUE: I brought this all the way from California.
LARRY JONES: All the way? All right!
DAVID POGUE: I carried it by hand.
LARRY JONES: Uh-huh.
DAVID POGUE: Because you know it's rare earth…
LARRY JONES: It's rare earth.
DAVID POGUE: …ore, and I didn't want anything to happen. I didn't check it. I didn't put it in the overhead.
LARRY JONES: Yeah, okay.
DAVID POGUE: I think I got some beautiful samples.
LARRY JONES: Oh, yeah?
DAVID POGUE: There's this mine in California, the largest one in the United States.
LARRY JONES: Right.
DAVID POGUE: Look at the size of this one.
LARRY JONES: Oh, yeah.
DAVID POGUE: I think this one's my favorite.
LARRY JONES: Oh, yeah.
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