Wednesday, March 14, 2012

EU, US, Japan launch rare earth WTO case against China

Dr. Robert N. Castellano, The Information Network, USA

NEW TRIPOLI, USA: In our new report “Rare Earths Elements In High-Tech Industries: Market Analysis And Forecasts Amid China’s Trade Embargo”, we estimate that the Chinese held 90 percent of capacity of rare earth oxides with 103,300 tons, but its share will drop to 67.2 percent in 2014 based on output of new mines coming onstream. China’s capacity will only increase 10.4 percent to 114,000 tons between 2010 and 2014, whereas non-Chinese capacity will increase nearly five-fold, from 11,500 to 55,800 tons.

That should somewhat alleviate the problem long term, but what about the short-term ramifications? Let’s take a look as some of the high-tech applications detailed in our report.

Rare earth materials are used in several applications in semiconductor manufacturing. I focus here on two - high-k dielectric films and polishing materials.

Rare earth oxides have relatively higher dielectric constants and are suitable as gate dielectrics. Semiconductor manufacturers such as Intel, AMD, Texas Instruments, IBM, STMicroelectronics, TSMC, and Freescale Semiconductor have replaced the transition-metal oxide hafnia (HfO2) as a 1st generation high-k gate dielectrics for yet better performing gate dielectrics for MOSFETs with REE-based gadolinium oxide, Gd2O3, attracts more attention than other oxides in this class.

Ceria is the only rare earth with the chemical and mechanical properties to be utilized in STI CMP. We will see STI slurry prices in the $70 per gallon range in the short term. Slurry suppliers need to reduce the amount of ceria solids in the slurry to keep prices stabilized, yet maintain the slurry’s high performance and selectivities already standard in IC manufacturing.

Hard disk drives (HDDs)
Rare earth materials are used in several applications in HDD manufacturing. I focus here on three - neo-magnets, glass substrates and polishing materials. Companies impacted are Seagate and Western Digital.

For magnets, 50 percent of the world's neodymium magnets are currently used in HDDs with each HDD typically containing two magnets. The magnets are used in the actuator - a device which moves the actuator arm on the tip of which is the head which reads and writes data to/from the ultra-delicate platters. Driving the arm using magnets means that mechanical wear and tear is not an issue - unlike old-fashioned stepper motor powered hard drives.

Rare-earth magnets account for 80 percent of the market for “permanent” magnets that retain their charge, up from zero in 1980

For slurry, manganese oxide abrasives can be used to replace cerium oxide abrasives for the polishing of glass substrates. Using ceria, the mechanism is a chemical interaction with the glass. There is no chemical interaction with manganese oxide. Therefore, mechanical polishing is the mechanism. Parameters need to be adjusted to maximize the abrasive density, pressure, and speed of the process.

For polishing glass disks used in HDDs for mobile applications, there is no substitute for ceria.

Displays – FPD/CRT
Rare earth materials are used in several applications in flat panel display/cathode ray tube (FPD/CRT) manufacturing. I focus here on two - polishing materials and phosphors. The leading US company impacted is Dow Corning.

Cerium oxide, through its unique physical and chemical properties, has been the building block upon which glass polishing has been based for over 40 years. It is a very efficient polishing compound as it removes glass both by its chemical dissolution and by mechanical abrasion. Ceria polishing powders are used to polish CRT, PDP and LCD glass.

Europium and terbium are the key materials for phosphors. Clearly the market for PDP TVs is flat, so use of phosphors for these products is will be flat in the near and probably long term. The CRT market is rapidly declining, minimizing the need for phosphor.

A typical laptop display uses a tiny Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lamp (CCFL) for the backlight. One of these small tubes is able to provide a bright white light source that can be diffused by the panel behind the LCD. The light we see from a fluorescent tube is the light given off by the phosphor coating the inside of the tube. We are seeing a move to LED backlight TVs (LED TVs), impacting the phosphor consumption for LCD TVs. CCFL will continue to be used for notebook displays and small LCD TVs.

Other issues addressed in the report are RRE in solid state lighting (LEDs and CFL), mobile consumer devices, and green technology.

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