Fast Company

Nanosys: We Can Replace Some Rare Earth Metals


Rare earth metals, a collection of 17 chemical elements found in the Earth's crust, are found in a variety of electronic devices, including LED lights, electric car motors, wind turbines, solar panels, and lithium-ion batteries. There's just one problem: The metals are only found in high concentrations in a few sites in China, the U.S., and Australia--and China has threatened to stop exporting its supply. But instead of expanding rare earth metal mines, what if we look for more sustainable replacements?

Enter Nanosys, a company that offers process-ready materials for the LED and energy-storage markets, among other things. Nanosys has been thinking about rare earth material shortages for years, which is why the company manufactures synthetic phosphors out of common materials--not the rare earth materials (i.e. yttrium) usually used in phosphors.

"We make a semiconductor phosphor that employs a nanomaterial called a quantum dot," explains Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove. "It's made out of indium phosphide, and the synthesis process is all in the lab. There's no heavy metal mining, no destructive mining practices."

Nanosys's QuantumRail LED backlighting device is made out of quantum dots, which can purportedly generate brighter and richer colors than their rare earth metal counterparts--all while delivering a higher efficiency and lower cost.

Unsurprisingly, big-name electronics manufacturers are interested in what Nanosys has to offer. "We work with LG, Samsung, and a number of other companies that are unannounced. Our customers have a strong interest in alternatives to rare earth metals," Hartlove says. That's because LED backlighting is big business--think about all the televisions, cell phone displays, and computer monitors that rely on the technology.

The next step for Nanosys is scaling up as fast as possible. "There are no scaling limits on what we can do in terms of production," Hartlove explains.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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