By Tamara Alliot, MMTA
The Executive Team was kindly invited to MMTA member company Less Common Metals (LCM) just before Christmas. Ian Higgins, the Managing Director welcomed us to their site in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire.
LCM produces Rare Earth based alloys, supplying the permanent magnet industry. The company counts some of the world’s largest magnet manufacturers as its customers; these are based all around the world including Europe, US, Japan, Taiwan and even into China (which dominates Rare Earth supply) where LCM supply in niche and specialised markets. Many of the magnets produced are subsequently supplied into the automotive sector.
LCM products are made to clients’ specifications and include complex alloys and other specialised products with tight compositional tolerances and controlled microstructures. Since 2008, LCM has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Great Western Minerals Group. The group has developed a ‘mine to market’ model establishing a fully integrated supply chain of rare earth alloys.
After the company presentation, including its history and products as well as Health and Safety rules, we were able to discuss with Ian and his colleagues David Murthy and Chris Hall the concept of criticality of metals in the EU and the dominance of China in the Rare Earth supply chain.
As you are aware from previous Crucible articles, Rare Earths are classed as critical and/or strategic in many jurisdictions due to their unique technical properties and the dominance of China in their supply, which leaves the material exposed to price fluctuations, as seen in the past.
Building an integrated supply chain of rare earths outside China helps to reduce risk of supply chain disruptions. Having sustainable supply of Rare Earth allows their exceptional technical properties to be fully utilised rather than focusing on trying to substitute them out of products, which is sometimes detrimental to product performance.
Environmental performance and traceability are very important considerations for end users, and a fully integrated supply chain allows end-users to have confidence in the origin and standards of their material.
During the afternoon we toured the 6,200m2 building which employs 29 permanent members of staff. There is an on-site analytical lab with products tested and made to customer specifications. The facilities have ISO 9001-2008 and ISO 14001 certification.
One of the pieces of equipment we learnt about during the tour was the 600kg Strip casting melter, which was installed in 2012 when the business moved to its current premises. This equipment produces a uniform fine grain structure and minimises the formation of alpha-iron formation which is preferable for magnet makers. A water cooled rotating copper wheel rapidly chills the molten material which turns it into flakes, with the size of flakes depending on the wheel speed.
We would like to thank Ian and the LCM staff for such an informative and enjoyable visit.
During our discussions at LCM, the subject of magnetocaloric alloys came into conversation, a fascinating property of some Rare Earth alloys.
A magnetocaloric alloy is one that changes temperature when in a magnetic field.
Praseodymium alloyed with nickel (PrNi) has such a strong magnetocaloric effect that it has allowed scientists to approach to within one milliKelvin (one thousandth of a degree) of absolute zero.
Here is a video of the process for those reading online:
Magnetic cooling can provide a new solution for refrigeration, reducing energy consumption and eliminating the use of hazardous coolants which also reduces issues with recycling. The diagram below shows a Gadolinium alloy heating up inside the magnetic field and losing thermal energy to the environment, therefore exiting the field cooler than when it entered.