Karen A. Newman
I first learned of recent rather dramatic price hikes in cerium slurry when a reader
with cause for worry called me in late September. Cerium is one of the 17 rare-earth
elements (REEs) – numbered 57 through 71 on the periodic table, plus scandium
(21) and yttrium (39) – many of which are critical in the manufacture of products
at the very heart of our high-tech world, products for which demand is skyrocketing.
Cerium slurry, made from cerium oxide, is used in the photonics industry to polish
lenses used in medical, defense and entertainment applications.
My caller’s concerns were twofold. With prices on a recent
order running 260 percent higher than on one placed only four weeks earlier, he
was worried that the cost of this material could very soon and very seriously cut
into his profits. He also worried about reports that China – where he procures
his slurry – plans to reduce exports over the next few years, reportedly due
in part to growing domestic demand for an increasingly high-tech lifestyle. “If
we can’t get it,” said my caller, “we can’t polish optics.”
China, which is said to produce as much as 97 percent of the world’s
REE supply, has stated that by 2012 it will cut exports of its rare-earth minerals
by 40 percent, according to published reports. At about that time, according to
experts, world demand will outpace current supply. And while sizable deposits of
these important minerals do exist around the world, by many estimates, alternative
production won’t be available to the market for several years.
As REE-reliant businesses search for alternatives and alternate
sources, US legislators are considering bills to jump-start the domestic rare-earth
mining and refining industry, shuttered since the 1980s, when prices for imported
product dropped so low that sustaining the industry became impossible.
As this issue goes to press, the story is still unfolding, and
we will continue to monitor the situation. Look for a comprehensive feature on rare-earth
elements and their importance to photonics in a future issue. In the meantime, let
me know what you think. Write to me at email@example.com.
At the moment, I am making final plans to attend Frontiers in
Optics 2010, the 94th annual meeting of the Optical Society of America, in Rochester,
N.Y. Be sure to visit Photonics.com for show highlights.
- The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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