US spots $120M for lab to tackle rare earth shortages

DOE National Labs, Purdue, Rutgers, University of California-Davis and GE among group to help develop new rare earth technologies

With China once again playing games with the rare earth materials it largely holds sway over, the US Department of Energy today said it would set up a research and development hub that will bring together all manner of experts to help address the situation.

The DOE awarded $120 million to Ames Laboratory to set up an Energy Innovation Hub that will develop solutions to the domestic shortages of rare earth metals and other materials critical for US energy security, the DOE stated.    

RELATED: Advanced tech conflict: China's rare earth stranglehold

The new research center will be called the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), and will feature academic researchers, scientists from the DOE's national laboratories, as well as experts from the private sector whose goals will be to come up with technologies that will enable the country to make better use of the materials it has to as well as eliminate the need for materials that are subject to supply disruptions.

CMI will include Idaho National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. University and research partners include Brown, the Colorado School of Mines, Purdue, Rutgers, University of California-Davis, Iowa State, and Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute. Industry partners that have joined to help advance CMI developed technologies include General Electric; OLI Systems; SpinTek Filtration; Advanced Recovery; Cytec; Molycorp; and Simbol Materials.

CMI specifically plans to organize its efforts in four mutually supporting focus areas:

  • Diversify Supply - enable new sources of critical materials that are not now commercially viable, improve the economics of processing existing sources, and identify new uses for co-products and by-products that do not currently contribute to the economics of materials production.
  • Develop Substitutes - design and deploy replacement materials that have lower or zero critical materials content, and develop a knowledge-based approach to accelerate advanced material development and deployment.
  • Improve Reuse and Recycling - both reduce demand and increase supply by developing economically viable technologies for efficient material use in manufacturing, recycling, and reuse.
  • Conduct Crosscutting Research - develop theoretical, computational, and experimental tools necessary to support the basic science needs of the other focus areas; develop and apply strategies to assess and address environmental sustainability and the life cycle of new CMI developed materials and processes; and evaluate the social and economic viability of the CMI developed science and engineering solutions.

Rare earth materials are used in many applications for their magnetic and other distinctive properties and include 17 elements with names such as lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, yttrium and scandium.  The materials are used to build everything from wind turbines, hybrid-vehicle batteries, weapons guidance systems, oil refining catalysts, computer disk drives, televisions and monitors, compact fluorescent light bulbs and fiber optic cable. 

At issue is the fact that China controls some 95% of the world's rare earth materials.

In a report on rare earth materials in 2011, the Government Accountability Office said rebuilding the US rare earth supply chain could take up to 15 years and is dependent on several factors, including securing capital investments in processing infrastructure, developing new technologies, and acquiring patents -- many of which are held by international companies, the GAO stated.

The report went on to say the United States has the expertise but lacks the manufacturing facilities to refine oxides to metals. For example, the United States is not currently producing neodymium iron boron (NeFeB) permanent magnets used for computer hard drives and cell phones and has only one samarium cobalt (SmCo) magnet producer. SmCo is used a lot in what's known as a traveling-wave tube, an electronic device that amplifies radio signals.

The world's rare earth users are making some headway against China's stranglehold.  A Bloomberg report this week noted that "demand for some China rare earths has declined as companies such as Toyota and Hitachi to recycle the metals and employ substitutes. In November, Japan, the world's biggest importer of rare earths, signed an agreement to buy more of the metals from India to diversify supply.

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