Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University recently announced the successful synthesis of materials that could alleviate the need for rare earth metals from China.
Rare earth metals are a group of 17 elements needed to produce high-tech products ranging from smartphones to electric car motors, and China produces nearly all of the world's supply.
The VCU study, published in the journal Applied Physics Letters, constructed nanoparticles of iron, cobalt and carbon that exhibited properties similar to magnets that generally contain rare earth elements.
"The discovery opens the pathway to systematically improving the new material to outperform the current permanent magnets," said physics professor Shiv Khanna.
Despite their name, rare earth metals are generally common in the Earth's crust. China, however, dominates the market largely because its authorities ignore the devastating environmental impacts of extracting the metals.
A BBC report earlier this year described the "dystopian and horrifying" conditions near the city of Baotou, where refineries churn out rare earth metals from the Bayan Obo mines and send the byproducts into a man-made lake of "black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge."