The capabilities of our armed forces have transformed over the last two decades. The technological tools at their command give them unprecedented awareness of the battlefield, superior communications capabilities, and the ability strike with exceptional precision, and all with equipment that is lighter, more functional, and more effective. Each of these capabilities and characteristics are enabled by rare earth elements and the oxides, metals and magnets that derive from them.
The satellites that deliver critical information from command centers to troops in the field rely on a variety of rare earths. From the magnets that aid satellite positioning to the magnets and phosphors that aid communications transmission and reception, neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, europium, terbium, and yttrium all play a part.
Neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB or neo) magnets are essential components in a wide variety of equipment that the military uses. Neo magnets’ unique combination of high magnetic power and low weight make them indispensible in military uses. From the small motors that adjust the flaps on precision guided munitions to the hard disk drives in the computers used on base and in the field, these magnets are ubiquitous.
Dysprosium is also a critical element in the neo magnets used in defense-related applications. Dysprosium is added to neodymium alloys and magnets to enable the magnets to maintain their highest levels of magnetic performance at high temperatures. This is obviously critical in applications like motors for guided missiles or in larger engines where elevated heat levels are standard.
Samarium-cobalt (SmCo) magnets are also very powerful and maintain consistent performance at high temperatures, so they, too, are used in military applications that require these characteristics. Like neo magnets, SmCo magnets are also used in small motors as well as satellite systems.
The rare earth phosphors europium and terbium are used in LCD screens for computers and hand held devices to give the displays color and, in turn, enable a higher degree of functionality. They are also used in laser technology. And the phosphor yttrium is a key element in night vision goggles.
Rare earths, with their unique magnetic, metallurgic and phosphorescent properties, are the elements that enable advanced technologies, and modern defense systems and equipment are some of the most advanced technologies to be found anywhere. They don’t need a lot of the material, but without them, the equipment would be far less effective, far less efficient, and more likely, a combination of both.