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Manufacturers explore their options amid higher rare earths prices

Keywords: Tags  rare earths, rare earths prices, dymium-iron-boron magnets, Steve Constantinides, Arnold Magnetic Technologies, Myra Pinkham

High prices have prompted manufacturers to try to design around the use of rare earths whenever their unique properties aren’t absolutely needed or, if possible, to use more of the less-volatile, less-costly “light” rare earth elements in their products.

“Manufacturers need to be more confident about the price or they will turn to alternative materials if possible,” said Steve Constantinides, director of technology at Rochester, N.Y.-based Arnold Magnetic Technologies Corp., a producer of rare earth permanent magnets.

With the strong run up in the price of neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnets—driven by skyrocketing tags for both neodymium metal and other rare earths, most notably dysprosium—demand for samarium-cobalt magnets, which generally are more of a niche product used largely for higher-temperature applications, has doubled, he said. In fact, some original equipment manufacturers are turning to non-rare earths-containing ferrite magnets, which while less powerful are also less expensive.

Constantinides noted that neodymium metal prices have moderated slightly in the past several months after peaking at $400 per kilogram last summer vs. a low of $7 per kg in 2003. Meanwhile, dysprosium, without which neodymium-iron-boron magnets would be useful only to about 80 degrees Celsius—a temperature at which it would be rendered useless in many of its current applications, such as automotive—has seen an even steeper climb, peaking at $1,700 per kg compared with a low of $15 per kg.

Neodymium-iron-boron magnets were around $150 per kg last summer compared with $45 per kg in 2010, and while prices have since moderated somewhat they remain at historic highs. Constantinides said he expects the moderation to continue in the next few months and then level off at about 20 percent of current pricing.

While neodymium prices logged fourfold to fivefold gains last year vs. 2010 levels, samarium’s rate of increase was considerably less as prices just about doubled. Despite this, Constantinides doesn’t expect a major switch to samarium-cobalt magnets, which he said are more appropriate for such low- to moderate-volume applications as motors and generators for aircraft and military applications, and for guiding down-hole oil and natural gas drilling equipment.

Since there is less samarium than neodymium in the Earth’s crust, he said, the current price advantage of samarium-cobalt magnets would diminish if they were used in the high-volume applications in which neodymium-iron-boron magnets are currently used, including wind turbines, hybrid, electric and other automobiles, computer disk drives and cellular telephones. 

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