EDITORIAL: Substituting rare earths
The "magical" elements of rare earths, which can make magnets stronger or produce light, are indispensable in high-tech products, such as motors for hybrid cars and electronic parts, for which Japan is famous.
Unfortunately, the amount is limited. And major producer China has started to restrict exports, leading to a sharp rise in prices. This is a serious problem for Japan, which is poor in natural resources.
What if such "magic" can be realized with iron, the most common element on Earth? This may not be a far-fetched dream.
Under an "element strategy," Japanese scientists are thoroughly studying chemical elements to draw new functions and replace rare elements with more common ones. With the support of government offices, including the ministry of science and technology and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, researchers will host a symposium on their strategy in March.
We want them to advance their research. Of course, it will not be easy, but there must be other researchers eager to take on this difficult challenge.
Restrictions on resources are not limited to rare elements. For example, resources are limited for phosphoric acid and calcium, two of the three elements essential to plants. The other essential element, nitrogen in the air, can be turned into fertilizer in factories.
The limits are particularly true for phosphoric acid because China is starting to impose restrictions on exports of phosphate rocks from which it is produced.
Resources are also limited for rare metals, such as indium, which is indispensable for liquid crystal displays, and it is also difficult to find substitutes of more common elements, such as copper. The situation has led to increasing thefts.
Technology concerning such materials is a specialty of Japan and Japanese industries. For example, Masato Sagawa of what was then Sumitomo Special Metals Co. was the first to develop a powerful magnet using neodymium, a rare metal, during the 1980s.
Professor Hideo Hosono of the Tokyo Institute of Technology is attracting international attention for developing a superconductive substance using iron.
But Japan cannot afford to be complacent. Last year, China surpassed Japan in terms of the number of important research papers in the area of substances and materials.
The element strategy project was proposed by Eiichi Nakamura, a University of Tokyo professor, in 2004 to take advantage of Japan's strengths.
Technology to make fertilizer from nitrogen in the atmosphere was proposed at the end of the 19th century by a British chemist, who warned that people would starve if they ran out of nitrogen fertilizers.
"I want young researchers with motivation to take the challenge," Hosono said.
With global resources becoming increasingly limited, research into the elements will become all the more important for humankind. We want Japan, which is scarce in natural resources, to bring this flower into full bloom.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 10