Okay, we’re not running out. We actually have tons of the stuff. But there is a global supply chain crisis. Most of the world’s magnesium is processed in China and several months ago, they just… stopped. In an effort to hit energy consumption quotas, the government of the city of Yulin (where most of the country’s magnesium production takes place) ordered 70% of the smelters to shut down entirely, and the remainder to slash their output by 50%. So, while magnesium remains one of the most abundant elements on the planet, we’re readily running out of processed metal that we can use in manufacturing.
But, how do we actually use magnesium in manufacturing anyway? Well, some things are just made from it. It can be mixed with other elements to be made into strong, lightweight alloys that are readily machined and cast. These alloys make up all manner of stuff from race car wheels to camera bodies (and the chassis of the laptop I’m typing this article on). These more direct uses aside, there’s another, larger draw for magnesium that isn’t immediately apparent: aluminum production.
But wait, aluminum, like magnesium is an element. So why would we need magnesium to make it? Rest assured, there’s no alchemy involved- just alloying. Much like magnesium, aluminum is rarely used in its raw form — it’s mixed with other elements to give it desirable properties such as high strength, ductility, toughness, etc. And, as you may have already guessed, most of these alloys require magnesium. Now we’re beginning to paint a larger, scarier picture (and we just missed Halloween!) — a disruption to the world’s aluminum supply.
There’s no debating that metallic sodium is exciting stuff, but getting your hands on some can be problematic, what with the need to ship it in a mineral oil bath to keep it from exploding. So why not make your own? No problem, just pass a few thousand amps of current through an 800° pot of molten table salt. Easy as pie.
Thankfully, there’s now a more approachable method courtesy of this clever chemical hack that makes metallic sodium in quantity without using electrolysis. [NurdRage], aka [Dr. N. Butyl Lithium], has developed a process to extract metallic sodium from sodium hydroxide. In fact, everything [NurdRage] used to make the large slugs of sodium is easily and cheaply available – NaOH from drain cleaner, magnesium from fire starters, and mineral oil to keep things calm. The reaction requires an unusual catalyst – menthol – which is easily obtained online. He also gave the reaction a jump-start with a small amount of sodium metal, which can be produced by the lower-yielding but far more spectacular thermochemical dioxane method; lithium harvested from old batteries can be substituted in a pinch. The reaction will require a great deal of care to make sure nothing goes wrong, but in the end, sizable chunks of the soft, gray metal are produced at phenomenal yields of 90% and more. The video below walks you through the whole process.
It looks as though [NurdRage]’s method can be scaled up substantially or done in repeated small batches to create even more sodium. But what do you do when you make too much sodium metal and need to dispose of it? Not a problem.
We think of high tech materials as the purview of the space program, or of high-performance aircraft. But there are other niche applications that foster super materials, for example the world of cycling. Magnesium is one such material as it is strong and light, but it has the annoying property of burning in its pure state. Alloys of magnesium meanwhile generally don’t combust unless they are ground fine or exposed to high temperatures. Allite is introducing a new line known as “super magnesium” which is in reality three distinct alloys that they claim are 30% lighter than aluminum, as well as stronger and stiffer than the equivalent mass of that metal. They also claim the material will melt at 1200F instead of burning. To lend an air of mystique, this material was once only available for defense applications but now is open to everyone.
It’s a material that comes in three grades. AE81 is optimized for welding, ZE62 is better suited for forging, while WE54 is made for casting processes. Those names might sound like made up stock numbers, but they aren’t, as magnesium allows typically have names that indicate the material used to mix with the magnesium. A stands for aluminum, Z is for zirconium zinc, W is for yttrium, and E stands for rare earths. So AE81 is a mix of magnesium, aluminum, and some rare earth material. The numbers indicate the approximate amount of each addition, so AE81 is 8% aluminum and 1% rare earth.
Recently I was given a somewhat crusty looking ThinkPad T400 that seemed like it would make a good knock around machine to have on the bench, if it wasn’t for the fact the person who gave it to me had forgotten (or perhaps never knew) the BIOS password. Cleaning the machine up, putting more RAM in it, and swapping the wheezing hard drive for an SSD would be a relatively cheap way to wring a few more years of life from the machine, but not if I couldn’t change the boot order in BIOS.
Alright, that’s not entirely true. I could have installed an OS on the SSD from my desktop and then put it into the T400, but there was something else at play. The locked BIOS gave me the perfect excuse to install LibreBoot on it, which is one of those projects I’ve had in the back of my mind for years now. Replacing the BIOS with something entirely different would solve the password issue, but there was only one problem: the instructions for flashing LibreBoot onto the T400 are intimidating to say the least.
You’re supposed to take the entire machine apart, down to pulling the CPU cooler off and removing the display. All so you can flip the motherboard over to access a flash chip between the CPU and RAM that’s normally covered by a piece of the laptop’s frame. Oh how I hated that diabolical chunk of magnesium which kept me from my silicon quarry. Flashing the chip would take a few minutes, but YouTube videos and first hand accounts from forums told me it could take hours to disassemble the computer and then put it back together after the fact.
Deep into that darkness I peered, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting. Then a thought came to me: maybe I could just cut the thing. If it was a success, it would save me hours of work. If it failed, well, at least the computer didn’t cost me anything. Time to roll the dice.