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Critical Materials Institute a Welcome Addition to the Energy Innovation Ecosystem

Dysprosium, a rare earth metal used in magnets for wind turbines and electric vehicles. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Department of Energy announced the establishment of a new Energy Innovation Hub at the Ames Laboratory in Ames, Iowa – the fifth such Hub, following the creation of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research last November. The new Hub will be named the Critical Materials Institute and will “develop solutions to the domestic shortages of rare earth metals and other materials critical for U.S. energy security,” as stated in the Department of Energy (DOE) press release. The Hub-system continues to be a model for concentrating national research efforts, both public and private, and the focus area of the newest addition is a vital one.

As the DOE notes in a helpful infographic, rare earth metals like dysprosium and neodymium are essential to the creation of a wide array of electronics, as well as clean energy technologies like photovoltaic solar film, wind turbines, and electric vehicles. Yet China alone produces close to 95 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth metals, a set of seventeen different chemical elements in the periodic table. Brad Plumer documents how this came to be at The Washington Post:

Despite their name, rare-earth elements aren’t actually all that rare. At different points in the 20th century, countries such as Brazil, India, the United States and South Africa all held the top spot for rare-earth mining. But in the 1980s, China cranked up production massively, causing prices to crater, and managed to take over the market…

Part of the reason China could corner the market was that it didn’t follow the same stringent pollution safeguards that Western countries did. Processing rare-earth ore involves a variety of toxic acids, and tends to be horrifically dirty. During the 1990s, the biggest mine in the United States, in the Mojave Desert near Mountain Pass, Calif., would produce “hundreds of gallons of wastewater an hour, mixed with radioactive elements from thorium to uranium.” Eventually, U.S. environmental rules tightened and production shifted to China. The Mountain Pass mine shut down in 2002.

Graphic credit: U .S. Geological Survey.

China’s near-monopoly on rare earth metals is of obvious concern to clean energy technology developers, especially seeing how – as related by Plumer – “The country perpetually restricts the amount of rare earths it exports — reducing quotas by 40 percent in 2010.”

That’s why the new Critical Materials Institute is so important. On the one hand, rare earth-mining is slowly ramping up again in the United States – the Mountan Pass mine, for example, is in the process of re-opening – and in lieu of rolling back environmental regulations, the new Hub will help develop cleaner, more efficient mining processes.  On the other hand, the new Hub will also work to improve the economics of existing sources, including improving rare earth-reuse and recycling, and even develop substitutes, such that the nation is less dependent on rare earth-mining in the first place. Furthermore, in partnering with four different National Labs, six universities, and a variety of private companies, the Hub will be drawing on some of the top researchers available in pursuit of innovation. The national clean energy innovation ecosystem will only be made stronger because of it.

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