In February 2014 the UK Magnetic Society hosted the Critical Rare Earth Materials meeting at the University of Birmingham welcoming over 100 delegates to the campus, making it one of the largest meetings the Society has ever held. 

Rare earth elements are used in many high tech and clean energy industries, however there are growing challenges in the supply chain for these materials and these rare earth elements are now top of the list of critical materials in the EU, US and Japan. To address this, the scientific programme of this meeting covered a broad range of areas, from primary resources to recycling and reducing their use in industrial sectors. This ‘mine to market’ approach enabled delegates to get a full overview of the rare earth arena in one day. The speakers, from both academia and industry, were world-leading figures in their respective fields. Informative talks provided insight into the advances in critical rare earth material research and the development of potential solutions to the shortfall in the current rare earth materials supply.

Delegates looked specifically at the difficulties in finding and separating rare earth elements due to low concentrations in rock forming minerals, economical and environmental issues of extraction processes and the subsequent problems with the balance between production and supply. Talks also covered the common and continuing use of rare earth materials in various applications including phosphors, which are luminescent solid substances utilised in various modern technologies such as LEDs and in permanent magnets, where rare earths lead to remarkable magnetic properties.

One of the overarching focuses was on reducing the use of rare earth materials to help address the shortfall in supply, especially as the rare earth magnet market is expanding by 10% per annum. Delegates looked at the exploitation of the physical properties of the rare earth elements at the nanoscale which could lead to the development of promising new materials and decrease the pressure on the supply of these rare earth elements.  The meeting concluded with a presentation on the objectives and priorities of the European Research Council centred on critical raw materials and the associated funding opportunities in the Horizon 2020 scheme.

This meeting was organised by Dr Allan Walton, Head of the Magnetic Materials Group (MMG) in the School of Metallurgy and Materials who works on the processing of rare earth magnets.