In 1984, the magnetic materials research community in Europe was at a formidable crossroads. The latter part of 1983 had seen industrial research groups in the USA and Japan simultaneously announce the discovery of a promising new permanent magnet material, based on the neodymium-iron-boron [Nd-Fe-B] alloy system. This long-sought successor to the ever more expensive samarium-cobalt magnet materials, had been discovered via not one but two different processing routes. For all intents and purposes the Europeans were left out in the cold. Their colleagues in the USA and Japan had pulled ahead in the pursuit and it was unclear as to what the Europeans should do next.
It could have gone either way; but what did happen next, is in my mind a fascinating case study on the value of scientific collaboration in the absence of a profit motive, combined with a remarkable leap of faith, to successfully overcome political, geographic, cultural and scientific challenges.
Late in 1984, the Concerted European Action on Magnets [CEAM] was born at a meeting in Brussels, the result of a unique coming together of the leaders of five European academic laboratories. This was a time before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before the Single European Act and before the European Union. It was a time when the bureaucrats of Europe were trying to find ways to help member countries work more closely together, as part of efforts to reduce mistrust and to achieve the objective of a more integrated pan-European economic system. This is a system that today most Europeans simply take for granted, but at the time, it was far from clear as to whether or not it would, or could, be achieved.
By the end of its remarkable eight year run, CEAM eventually produced over 1,000 research papers and well over a dozen patents as a result of the research of over 150 scientists, engineers and product designers, from 93 participating laboratories in 13 countries. Crucially, CEAM produced enduring relationships and collaborative efforts among key research groups within Europe, who to this day continue to work together in areas of magnetics research. Just as important, CEAM enabled the creation of a new generation of research scientists and engineers, whose Ph.D. studentships and activities were made possible in whole or in part by CEAM.
I put it to you that the CEAM approach is potentially an effective model for the creation of a framework for reviving rare earths research and development, and the subsequent “incubation” of new technical talent for this sector, in the USA, Canada, Europe and beyond. It is imperative that the Western rare earths supply chain [such as it exists today] realizes that its constituent members are part of a single international “ecosystem”, and that the most effective way to challenge the People’s Republic of China in this area, is to work together within a framework NOT motivated strictly by profit or limited by national borders.
To learn more about CEAM, why it was so successful, and the six steps that could be taken to apply the CEAM model to the revival of rare earths research and development in the West, you can download a copy of my new paper on the subject: “The Concerted European Action on Magnets: A Model for Facing the Rare Earths Challenge?” in PDF format.
Take a read, and let me know what you think by adding comments below.