On January 1, 2012, Siemens will begin providing €6 million in funding for the strategic collaboration — which is the world’s first Siemens research program at a university. Plans call for at least nine doctoral candidates to conduct their research under the auspices of the program over the next four years.
Siemens wants to reduce dependence on scarce or expensive raw materials such as rare earth metals, and the company will use different approaches in parallel for this effort. Researchers at the global research unit Corporate Technology (CT), for example, are working on strategies for efficient use of these materials, for recycling, and for finding substitutes. They are analyzing existing supply-related risks and developing new materials and recycling processes.
The main objective of the research program at RWTH is to develop methods and processes for ensuring environmentally friendly and efficient provision of rare earths for permanent magnets. In four theme clusters on rare earths, the focus is on assessment of alternative deposits, development of sustainable processes for recovery and extraction, and the creation of efficient methods for recycling and life cycle analyses.
Taking part in the collaboration are four departments from RWTH Aachen University, Forschungszentrum Jülich, and experts from Siemens’ Industry Sector. This strategic project is a result of the long-term cooperation with RWTH as a partner university in the Center of Knowledge Interchange (CKI) program organized by Siemens.
Many products require rare earths — such as electric motors, mobile phones, lasers, and LCD televisions. Permanent magnets for wind turbines contain neodymium and dysprosium, for example. But there could also be supply shortages of very high-strength metals, including niobium, tungsten, and molybdenum. Critical materials include platinum, palladium, indium and gallium. The outlook for the supply of gold, silver, and copper is less dramatic, although further price increases are a possibility.
On the basis of current market data, researchers from Siemens CT are determining which raw materials should be categorized as critical in terms of need, availability, and the political stability and monopolistic positioning of supplier countries. As reported in Pictures of the Future, possible solutions here include, for example, new, high-performance permanent magnets that require either no rare earth metals at all, or only small amounts. In order to use dysprosium more efficiently than in the past, for example, it should be concentrated only along the crystallite boundary of the neodymium-iron-boron magnets instead of being distributed throughout all the material.
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