Rare Earth Race: A Japanese Scientist Produces an Artificial Alternative

China’s decreasing rate of rare earth exports is forcing the world to scramble for alternative sources. Now the Japanese have artificially produced a palladium-like metal, commonly used for catalytic converters.

palladium molecule


The world–and particularly the Japanese–may be in a frenzy over China’s newly announced 35% cut in rare earth exports, those used to produce many high-tech devices, in the first half of this year. But a Japanese scientist has found one answer: Create the metals artificially.

Professor Hiroshi Kitagawa of Kyoto University has announced that he and his team of researchers have artificially produced a metal similar to palladium, a material commonly used in catalytic converters. In his lab, Kitagawa used a heating method to produce ultramicroscopic metal particles, ultimately mixing the usually resistant rhodium and silver to create the palladium-like metal.

“The orbits of the electrons in the rhodium and silver atoms probably got jumbled up and formed the same orbits as those of palladium,” Kitagawa told The Yomiuri Shimbun.

China is responsible for up to 97% of the world’s supply of rare earth metals but the country recently announced a decrease in exports. So the news that rare earth can be produced artificially should help blunt some of the overwhelming anxieties related to China’s exporting slow down. Japan, especially, was an early victim of China’s export decrease–China stopped supplying the country when the Japanese detained a Chinese fisherman who had roamed into contested waters.

The Japanese are getting serious about alternative sources in other ways as well; Japanese companies are largely responsible for helping to re-open the California rare earth mine in Mountain Pass–North America’s largest rare earths mine and the United States’ only rare earth mine–with investments topping $100 million.

A continued search for other sources is advisable, as artificial production is not quite ready for commercial scaling. Professor Kitagawa said that he has initiated additional research in partnership with certain companies, but he has not yet disclosed details–only saying that the research will help produce additional kinds of rare earths. In the meantime, there’s always China’s rare earth black market.


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About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.