Rare Talents

Metals crucial to electronics are in short supply, and so are the skills needed to solve the problem.

  • by Karl ­Gschneidner
  • April 19, 2011

The current shortage of rare-earth elements has made it clear that our ability to create new consumer electronics, develop clean energy technologies, and even maintain the nation’s military strength depends on developing a domestic industry to mine and process these materials. But the United States is suffering from more than just a shortage of mining and processing facilities (see The Rare-Earth Crisis). Right now, the country lacks the technically trained scientists and engineers required to bring the rare-earth industry back up to speed.

At its height, the industry employed about 25,000 people, approximately 4,000 of whom had college degrees in a science or engineering field. Today the total number is around 1,500, only 250 of whom are college-trained scientists or engineers. And while it may take only a couple of years to restart the nation’s rare-earth mines, it will take at least five to 10 years to educate the next generation of “rare-earthers” who must staff the total supply chain from mines to product manufacturers.

The area that will require the largest number of newly trained people is the manufacturing of products that contain rare-earth elements. These products include phosphors for lighting and displays as well as magnets for electric motors, wind turbines, cell phones, and computers. A smaller number of scientists and engineers will be needed to process the elements into the metals that go into magnets and batteries or into the compounds required for phosphors and catalysts. Still others will be needed to explore for sources of ore and to work in mining.

I estimate that meeting our present need for trained personnel will require graduating about 170 students from PhD, master’s, and bachelor’s programs each year for four years. Each year after that, we will need between 60 and 100 students with a solid background in rare earths and the fundamentals of chemistry, materials science, and engineering. The only realistic way for the United States to meet that goal and restart its rare-earth industry is to establish a dedicated national research center at a college or university with a long tradition in the study of what has become a largely forgotten area of science and engineering.

The industry’s only real alternative is to turn to China, which is already training hundreds of students in this field. But that would simply re-create the problem we are struggling with: relying on others for such a crucial part of our technological infrastructure.

Karl A. Gschneidner Jr. is a senior metallurgist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and a Professor AT the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Iowa State University.

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