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Interview with Dr. Harald Elsner, Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources

To current developments with rare earths for the automation technology

The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), Hannover, Germany, advises the German Federal Government and the German economy in all aspects regarding geoscientific and natural resources. Dr. Harald Elsner is economics geologist in the BGR and author of several publications about the supply situation of rare earths. Thomas Quest spoke to him about current developments regarding rare earths being important for the automation technology.

Foto Dr. Harald Elsner
Dr. Harald Elsner

Mr. Elsner, which share shows the German import of rare earths in the world-wide total demand?

July 23rd, 2012 - Germany is on fourth position regarding the world-wide demand for rare earths after China, Japan and the USA. In the meantime China’s demand consists of 70% of the total consumption.


This fourth position means a proportion of almost 10% of the total demand. However, that applies only if the demand of German companies, producing world-wide, is considered, included the demand of rare earths of manufacturing plants e.g. in the USA. The demand of rare earths in regard to manufacturing plants in Germany, this share is only with few percentages in the world-wide demand.

How do the automation manufacturers cover their demand for Neodymium and Dysprosium, both important for servo motors?

They do not buy Neodymium and Dysprosium themeselves but the magnetic materials for the motors containing Neodymium and Dysprosium. These magnetic materials are bought in larger amounts directly, so without middlemen, in China or in Japan. The middlemen cover smaller demand of e.g. one ton of magnetic materials.

How do you see the development of supply and demand regarding Neodymium and Dysprosium?

We expect that the prices for Neodymium will continue to drop significantly. The prices for Dysprosium will continue to decrease likewise but not as strongly as with Neodymium.

Currently Dysprosium is strongly substituted. In former times it had a proportion of 6% to 8% of the magnetic materials, this proportion dwindled to 2% in 2011. This succeeded e.g. in such a way that Dysprosium is not used any longer inside the magnetic materials but only outside on their surface.

However, in the next ten years there will world-wide not be any new mining project with larger amounts of Dysprosium. That is why the prices for Dysprosium will have achieved their bottom someday rising again.

How supply and prices regarding magnetic materials will altogether develop, depends on which demand in magnetic materials wind energy and electric vehicles will develop in the future.

What do you think about current announcements to be able to offer motors without rare earths?

To produce a motor with magnetic materials without rare earths is at best only possible in the laboratory scale.

At this stage you can substitute Neodymium by Praseodymium and Neodymium Iron Boron magnets by Samarium Cobalt magnets or ferrite magnets. However, the problem is that such motor requires a definitely larger building space. Today Dysprosium may be substituted by Terbium but Terbium is still rarer and still more expensive.

Mr. Elsner, thank you for the interview.

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The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, (BGR) Hannover, Germany, is the central scientific-technical authority of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology.

It advises the Federal Government and the economy to this range of topics, operates international projects of technical co-operation on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Economic Co-Operation and Development and finally carryies out own research.

Within the BGR the German Natural Resources Agency DERA is focused on the consultation of the economy regarding availability and sustainable use of natural resources since October 2010.

The BGR on the Internet.


Dr. Harald Elsner is amongst others author or co-author of

Elsner, Harald: Kritische Versorgungslage mit schweren Seltenen Erden – Entwicklung „Grüner Technologien“ gefährdet? In: Commodity Top News No. 36 der BGR

Elsner, Harald, Melcher, F., Schwarz-Schampera, U., Buchholz, P.: Elektronikmetalle – zukünftig steigender Bedarf bei unzureichender Versorgungslage? In: Commodity Top News No. 33

Liedtke, Maren, Elsner, Harald: Seltene Erden. In: Commodity Top News No. 31