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This 50-acre mine on the eastern edge of California’s Mojave Desert was once the world’s leading supplier of rare-earth metals. Water pooled at the bottom of the mine while it lay idle after being shut down a decade ago.

The Department of Energy has created a research lab dedicated to averting a supply crunch of rare earth elements and other economically important raw materials.

Called the Critical Materials Hub, it will be based at Ames National Laboratory in Iowa, which will coordinate work with three other national labs with a $120 million budget over five years. It’s one of five “innovation hubs” created by the DOE, a sign of how certain minerals are strategic to many energy-related technologies. (See Argonne Innovation Hub Announced.) 

The researchers will seek to develop new extraction techniques to diversify supply, find alternatives to critical materials, and increase reuse and recycling. Researchers will also develop economic analyses in an effort to identify supply constraints in the future.

Rare earth metals are considered strategic because they are used in a number of emerging energy technologies. Powerful permanent magnets are used in direct drive turbines or hybrid vehicles, while other important materials are used in some types of solar panels, batteries, and efficient lighting.

The DOE’s 2011 Critical Materials Strategy report identified dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium as most important rare earth elements with supply constraints. China supplies about 95 percent of the world’s rare earth elements. An embargo in 2010, due to frictions between China and Japan, was a wake-up call to other countries of supply risks.

The DOE’s Critical Materials Strategy Report 2011 shows that rare earth elements are the highest risk of supply constraints.

A rare earth mine at the Mountain Pass Mine in California, operated by Molycorp, has since reopened and there are other mining operations starting up in the world. But growing demand for these metals, particularly in large wind turbines and vehicles, has prompted multiple calls to diversify supply, develop alternative materials, and increase recycling. (See, The Rare-Earth Crisis.) 

Availability of critical materials is a necessary part of revitalizing manufacturing in the U.S., David Sandalow, the DOE’s assistant secretary for policy and international affairs said during a Webcast yesterday.

One large manufacturer, General Electric, has done multiple reviews of materials it uses to reduce its risk. These materials are needed not just for newer technologies but to improve the efficiency of existing energy gear. For example, natural gas turbines have heat coatings made with specialized alloys that allow them to run hotter and more efficiently, says Steven Duclos from GE Global Research. GE also uses rare earth elements in its medical devices.

One goal of the Ames lab is to make rare earth mining economically viable in more places, says director Alex King. It will also try to develop alternative methods for extracting rare earth elements from ore to reduce costs. The Critical Materials lab will coordinate alternative material work already being done at the ARPA-E research agency on magnets, motors, and generators. 

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Tagged: Energy, Materials, rare earth minerals

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