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Rare earth metals and other raw materials are critical to continuing the transition to a clean energy economy. In its "2011 Critical Materials" report, the DOE identifies and assesses the importance of 16 key clean energy raw materials and plots them against supply risk over short and medium-term scenarios.


Supply Risks for 16 Materials Key to Clean Energy Technologies

Rare earth metals and other raw materials are critical to continuing the transition to a clean energy economy. In its “2011 Critical Materials” report, the DOE identifies and assesses the importance of 16 key clean energy raw materials and plots them against supply risk over short and medium-term scenarios.

Short-term DOE Clean Energy-Supply Risk Critical Materials Scenario (Present - 2015)

The transition to an economy powered by clean, renewable energy sources is under way. Successfully building on recent success and ultimately achieving that goal critically depends on the ready availability of a range of raw materials with potential supply risks, however. In a comprehensive annual report, the Dept. of Energy (DOE) “identifies strategies of addressing these risks and provides background that may be helpful for stakeholders working in this area.”

Drafted by the DOE Office of Policy and International Affairs, the “2011 Critical Materials Strategy” report examines the role of rare earth metals and other materials in the clean energy economy,” raw materials critical to the manufacturing of a wide range of clean technologies, including wind turbines, electric vehicles (EVs), thin-film solar photovoltaic (PV) cells and energy-efficient lighting.

Among the key findings of the report, the following were cited in its executive summary:

  • The supply of raw materials critical in manufacturing wind turbines, EVs, thin-film PV and fluorescent lighting all face potential disruptions in the short term, the DOE’s research team found, though they believe these risks will decrease over the medium and long terms.
  • Challenges to securing ready supplies of five rare earth metals – dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium – may disrupt the development and deployment of clean energy technology in coming years.

The DOE and other stakeholders have scaled up domestic and international efforts to address these challenges. Recent initiatives include:

  • New funding for priority research, development of the Dept.’s first critical materials research plan, sponsoring international workshops and greater coordination among federal agencies working in these fields
  • Specialized education and training to build workforce capabilities that “help address vulnerabilities and realize opportunities related to critical materials”

Supply Risk for 16 Critical Key Clean Energy Materials

The 2011 Critical Materials report identifies and focuses on several clean energy technologies – wind turbines, EVs, solar PV cells and fluorescent lighting – expected to experience rapid growth in coming years.

In order to better gauge their possible future growth paths, the DOE research team developed a series of scenarios based on a methodology developed by the National Academy of Sciences. It employs differing sets of assumptions regarding the availability of rare earth metals and other critical raw materials. Embedded in them are assessments of 16 raw materials that were rated in terms of how critical they are in the manufacturing process.

The DOE notes that future supply and demand for these materials may differ significantly from the scenarios produced, cautioning that they shouldn’t be used as predictions. Breakthroughs and new developments in technology and materials science, as well as differences in supply and market responses to materials scarcity and other factors may very well differ from the assumption and judgments used in the report.

Importance to clean energy technologies and supply risk are the two dimensions that frame the report’s “Criticality Assessment.” Among the DOE’s findings contained in the report:

  • Used in wind turbine magnets and EVs or phosphors in energy-efficient lighting, five rare earth elements – dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium – were found to be critical in the short-term, ie the present to 2015
  • Supply of the rare earth elements cerium, indium, lanthanum and tellurium used in fabrication of solar PV cells as well as other clean energy technology were found to be near-critical over the next five years.

The importance to clean energy and supply risk for some materials shifted for some materials between the short-term and medium term, ie 2015-2025.

Medium-Term DOE Clean Energy-Supply Risk Critical Materials Scenario (2015-2025)

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I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.


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