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U.S. Congress Worries about Materials Shortages

Rare earth minerals are key to advanced technology, but almost all come from China.
March 17, 2010

From wind turbines to cell phones, rare earth minerals play a big role in advanced technology, and they could be key for future clean energy. But congress is worried about the fact that almost all of these materials come from China, and could be subject to tight export controls by that country’s government.

The subject was discussed yesterday at a hearing, where experts called on the U.S. government to take steps not only to promote domestic production of these materials, but to fund research to find ways to recycle them, to use less of them, and to do without them altogether.

The work has already started. In one recent example, the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, recently awarded $4.5 million to develop motors and generators that use magnetics containing low amounts of rare-earth materials. The project is ambitious:

High energy permanent magnets are critical components in the new energy economy due to their widespread use in advanced motors for hybrids and electric vehicles and in advanced wind turbine generators, and the currently dominant Nd-Fe-B magnets use materials that are not domestically available and are subject to critical supply disruptions. If successful, this project will return the U.S. to global leadership in advanced magnetic materials and will facilitate the widespread deployment of low cost hybrid and electric vehicles and wind power using domestically available materials and dramatically decrease U.S. oil imports and greenhouse gas emissions.

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