Dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium: if you can’t pronounce them that’s okay, all you need to know is that the near-term supply of these five rare earth metals is on shaky ground, just when they have been emerging as critical materials that the U.S. depends on to develop and produce the clean energy technologies of the future.
To keep the supply lines humming and to develop domestic alternatives, the Department of Energy has just committed $120 million to launch a new Energy Innovation Hub spearheaded by the Ames Laboratory in Iowa, called the Critical Materials Institute. The success of the project could have a huge impact on the ability of the U.S. to continue deploying advanced wind turbines and solar cells as well as electric vehicles and energy efficient lighting.
The Energy Innovation Hubs
To get a better idea of the significance of the Critical Materials Institute, it’s helpful to look at the Energy Innovation Hub initiative as a whole, which now includes five distinct points of focus.
The Energy Innovation Hub platform began in 2010 under the Obama Administration, based on the success of the three Bioenergy Research Centers established in 2007 under the Bush Administration.
The Bioenergy Research Centers have employed a multidisciplinary, “scientific management” approach aimed at developing next-generation biofuels and bioenergy strategies.
It’s the same type of organizational structure characterized by the famed Manhattan Project as well as lesser known but game-changing research efforts including the development of radar at MIT’s Lincoln Lab and the development of the transistor at AT&T Bell Laboratories.
With the Critical Materials Institute, the Energy Innovation Hubs now cover advanced electric vehicle battery research, energy efficiency technologies for buildings, artificial photosynthesis, and a nuclear energy performance and safety research effort based on advanced computer modeling.
The Critical Materials Institute
Knowing what you now know about dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium, it’s pretty clear that at least three of the four existing Hubs are facing a scenario in which they could come up with any number of groundbreaking new technologies that have nowhere to go because there is an inadequate or unpredictable supply of critical materials needed to manufacture them at commercial scale.
In the context of national security, the sourcing of rare earths and other critical materials from non-allied countries like China has already contributed to instability and potential shortages in the marketplace, spurring the need to develop alternatives.
That, in a nutshell, is where the Critical Materials Institute comes in. As DOE describes it in the press announcement:
“The new Hub will focus on technologies that will enable us to make better use of the materials we have access to as well as eliminate the need for materials that are subject to supply disruptions…Many materials deemed critical by the Department are used in modern clean energy technologies – such as wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, and energy-efficient lighting.”
As part and parcel of its interdisciplinary approach, one thing that the new Hub will focus on is the entire life cycle of the materials, which includes recycling and resource recovery as well as more efficient manufacturing techniques.
The other three areas of focus include developing new sources of critical materials and new strategies for making critical materials extraction more commercially viable, the development of substitute materials, and an over-arching research area that will evaluate environmental, social and economic sustainability.
Like the other four Hubs, the Critical Materials Institute is a public-private venture that includes numerous other national laboratories and academic research partners as well as General Electric, OLI Systems, Inc., SpinTek Filtration, Inc., Advanced Recovery, Cytec, Inc., Molycorp, Inc. and Simbol Materials.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.