It’s time to celebrate some materials that do great work for us.
Neodymium is one of those elements that is never found in its pure form (in nature). We can mine rocks and get some of the neodymium out, but it’s always mixed in with a bunch of other elements.
Once we take it out of whatever rock we’re taking it from, we use it to make Neodymium Magnets, which are the strongest “permanent” magnets known*. These aren’t regular old refrigerator magnets…some can lift 1000 times their own weight.
We use these magnets in lots of different electronic equipment, where electricity and magnetism play key roles: microphones, headphones, and some hard drives. In fact, their strength makes them a key ingredient when we’re trying to keep weights low. We’re using them in electric aircraft, wind turbines and there’s a bunch of neodymium in every Toyota Prius as well (Source).
In terms of safety, neodymium isn’t a major threat. It accumulates in the liver of humans if we regularly consume food products (or water) contaminated with it (Source), but this isn’t a major issue in most areas. It can also damage the cells of sea life if we dump it into lakes and rivers, but again, few examples of neodymium toxicity have been reported.
As is often the case, Neodymium is a friend … as long as we respect it.
* Just FYI, we can make HUGE magnets with electricity and super-cold temperatures…but we have to keep pumping in electricity and coolant, so they’re not called “permanent”. Read more on the Wiki page for Superconducting Magnets
Magnets photo used under Creative Commons from yellowcloud
Microphone photo used under Creative Commons from Roadside Guitars