Lutetium’s Rarity Makes Mass Production of Room-Temperature Superconductors Improbable

Lutetium’s Rarity Makes Mass Production of Room-Temperature Superconductor Improbable

This week the New York Times carried a story about what its “journalists” deemed a breakthrough in the development of a room-temperature superconductor, a material that could theoretically carry any amount of electricity without losses for any distance. Such a material, the holy grail of power distribution, has been sought for more than a century, since the discovery of this property, superconductivity, at near absolute zero temperature first in certain metal-based alloys and later also in certain exotic ceramics.

In fact, superconducting magnets expensively bathed in intensely cold liquid gases are used in the world’s most powerful particle colliders to control the intense high-energy beams of subatomic particles that these machines hurl into each other at fantastic energies to reproduce for a tiny moment the conditions at the beginning of our universe.

Pretty exciting, huh?

Not really, unless you’re a particle physicist, who doesn’t care about the costs or practicalities of distributing energy “cheaply” to the masses of humans who aren’t excited by the expensively explored mysteries of the subatomic universe.

But journalists and their political users love to hide the billions of dollars they pour into such experiments behind the rubric of the fantasized value of technological spinoffs, such as practical superconductors, which could maybe, perhaps, carry power produced cheaply on a sunny Spanish beach by wind or sun to remote Lapland in northern Europe without loss, cheaply.

This is just political bulls**t designed to cover a ridiculous immensely expensive prioritization of the exotic and glamorous over the practical and important in our daily lives.

Lutetium – A Heavy Rare Earths Metal but Truly Rare

The breakthrough touted by the New York Times would require large tonnages of the rare earth element, lutetium, the final and heaviest rare earth in the periodic table. No one really knows how much lutetium is produced annually, because that amount is trivial, perhaps a few tens of tons annually at the very most.

There is very little lutetium accessible to the human race’s mining technology because the higher atomic numbered rare earths, also known as the “heavy rare earths” are just a tiny fraction of the overall composition and thus of the production of the rare earths.

Lutetium is today used commercially only in specialized radiation detectors, each of which uses just a few grams of the extremely rare element.

The discovery of a room-temperature superconductor that critically requires lutetium is science, not technology because such material cannot be mass-produced, period.

Rare earth investors can safely ignore this “research.” Unless it leads to its implementation by the use of a common metal, any study requiring lutetium as a critical component is pure science not technology.

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10 responses

  1. Rare Earths Investor Avatar
    Rare Earths Investor

    Thanks for the information.

    Guess as a niche RE investor, I won’t be getting out my checkbook anytime soon. In fact, I’ll place this alongside RE moon, asteroid, seabed, bacterial, Turkish, Swedish and Afghanistan mining, etc., for this decade.

    GLTA – REI

    1. Jack Lifton Avatar
      Jack Lifton

      Your perfectly matched set of “announcements” is again complete.

  2. Dan Molter Avatar
    Dan Molter

    A google search for “buy Lutetium” returned 15.6 grams for $189.00 on Ebay and 1 gram for $9 on Amazon.

    Nobody is going to build power lines from a material in this cost range, but that is the least interesting of the possible applications for room temperature low pressure superconductors.

    magnetic confinement fusion reactors
    extremely sensitive EMF detectors (for use in non-invasive brain-computer interfaces, for example)
    very low power microprocessors
    magnetic levitation devices
    completely frictionless high-speed motors
    miniaturized particle accelerators
    rail guns

    Lutetium is plenty cheap for use in small superconducting devices, and the potential to replace cryogenic cooling with ordinary water or air cooling could make it a game changer for big ones too.

    1. JACK LIFTON Avatar

      Lutetium is “cheap,” because the demand for it is less than the supply. The USA imported 20mt of Lu last year. All from China.

  3. Jeff Koplow Avatar
    Jeff Koplow

    You’re right Jack. What has science, engineering, and R&D ever done that is useful? It all just a big waste of time and money. And it’s not like studying a breakthrough superconducting material will ever lead to any insights about how a superconducting material of comparable or better performance might be made from different, more abundant elements. It’s a law of nature that only expensive elements can furnish the required electron pairing phenomenon. You have great technical vision.

    1. JACK LIFTON Avatar


      Sarcasm is cheap. Superconducting research is not. Don’t you think that the capital available would be better directed at cancer research?


      1. Jeff Koplow Avatar
        Jeff Koplow

        You attempt to artificially frame the issue as a choice between superconducting materials science R&D and cancer prevention/treatment R&D. This isn’t debate class.

        Here’s the situation at hand. There are likely one more earth-abundant superconducting materials out there that we would have already pressed into service if we only knew what they were. Finding a practical room temperature supercomputer would be utterly game changing. If the preliminary research findings are correct, finding the first superconductor that functions at room temperature — but that relies on a non-abundant element — means we’re probably hammering right around the nail.

        We may come up empty handed, but I would assert that we would be remiss if we didn’t pull on this thread. Nobody has any illusions about standing up a revenue model based on non-earth-abundant materials for anything other than niche applications. Rather I would say this. Many have observed that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. The history of science is no problem exception.

      2. Nathan Brown Avatar
        Nathan Brown

        Research into superconducting materials is furthering cancer research. Compact MRIs that can travel to people in remote areas could save a lot of lives. Early detection gives the best odds of survival and the more cases we catch, the more we have to learn how to cure. We could do things like that without massive tonnage of lutetium. We also get the future advances developed as a result of what we learn from research and development to bring those products to commercial viability.

        These massive, expensive projects aren’t undertaken for the benefit of a bunch of curious physics nerds. They’re responsible for a massive portion of the commercial and technological products you use and enjoy every day. When we spend billions of dollars on a telescope, spacecraft or particle collider, we aren’t blasting that money into space or blowing it apart to never be seen again. That money is right here on earth. It goes right back into the economy. It pays salaries, buys supplies, pays contractors, etc. A portion of it trickles down into taxes and pays for the same stuff everyone else’s taxes pay for.

        We can’t advance as a species stagnating. Cancer research is important, but our species needs a diverse portfolio. Healthcare research thinks about now and seeks to prolong individual lives. Physics tries to understand how the universe works, how we can interact with it and how we can exploit it to advance the entire species. Subjectively, you may think the singular is more important. Objectively, you need both. People have to live long enough to make meaningful contributions, but they also have to be contributing to something. If we aren’t advancing, we’re less human

        1. JACK LIFTON Avatar
          JACK LIFTON

          I truly understand your passion. It is, to me, the passion of the young, who have not seen much of the world outside of the middle to upper class American cocoon.
          Most of humanity, billions of people, struggle each day just to have food, water, and warmth. Safety is paramount.
          I am a lifetime Star Trek fan. I even submitted a script for the show to Paramount, in person, in 1969, and cannot forget the secretary who showed me a pile of scripts on a desk and said, “the shows been cancelled.”
          In that year, 1969, I was working on a TV camera for the Apollo astronauts who were then shortly to visit the moon.
          I admit that I would have responded to the now me just as you have.
          But, time and millions of miles of travel throughout the world and sleeping in the open or on poured concrete “beds” in socialist Romania changed my viewpoint.
          The people of Africa, Asia, and South America need fresh water, food security and Western medicine (so do the Chinese, in the case of medicine).
          Any surplus capital not allocated for wealth creation through increased productivity or humanitarian uses is wasted.
          BIG science was born of war. It remains war’s child.
          The most important discoveries of the twentieth century were not made at Los Alamos; they were of the type that came out of low cost labs and first class minds, such as that of Fritz Haber. He didn’t need a supercomputer to synthesize ammonia.
          You are confusing engineering with science.

  4. Tracy Weslosky Avatar
    Tracy Weslosky

    What a delightful commentary Jack on Lutetium, loved it. I went over to our new to see if Lutetium was listed and alas it was not. Clearly your not the only one that deems Lutetium’s value to be as rare as it is to find/produce Lutetium economically. Again, what a fun run at something few to none of us know anything about. Just read the wikipedia page and departed knowing …. even less other than it seems to have a long radioactive half life.

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