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Ames Lab team to head new $120M Critical Materials Institute; addressing shortages in rare earth metals and other materials

The US Department of Energy selected a team led by its Ames Laboratory for an award of up to $120 million over five years to establish an Energy Innovation Hub that will develop solutions to the domestic shortages of rare earth metals and other materials critical for US energy. The new research center, which will be named the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), will bring together leading researchers from academia, four Department of Energy national laboratories, and the private sector. (Earlier post.)

Many materials deemed critical by the DOE are used in modern clean energy technologies—such as wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, and energy-efficient lighting. The DOE’s 2011 Critical Materials Strategy reported that supply challenges for five rare earth metals (dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium, and yttrium) may affect clean energy technology deployment in the coming years. (Earlier post.)

The new Hub will focus on technologies to enable better use of available materials as well as to eliminate the need for materials that are subject to supply disruptions.

In recent years, DOE and others have scaled up work to address these challenges. Among the recent investments, DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) and Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy have supported more than $40 million in magnet, motor, and generator research.

CMI will leverage these existing research programs into a larger, coordinated effort designed to eliminate materials criticality as an impediment to the commercialization of clean energy technologies. CMI 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.

CMI, headquartered at Ames Laboratory, will be directed by Alex King, currently the director of Ames Lab. The Hub will bring together some of the most advanced critical material research programs in the United States today.

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

Selected through an open national competition with a merit review process that relied on outside expert reviewers, CMI is the fifth Energy Innovation Hub established by the Energy Department since 2010. Other Hubs are devoted to modeling and simulation of nuclear reactors, achieving major improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings, developing fuels from sunlight, and advancing the next-generation of batteries and energy storage technology.

Energy Innovation Hubs are major integrated research centers with researchers from many different institutions and technical backgrounds that combine basic and applied research with engineering to accelerate scientific discovery in critical energy areas. They are modeled after the strong scientific management characteristics of the Manhattan Project, Lincoln Lab at MIT that developed radar, AT&T Bell Laboratories that developed the transistor and, more recently, the Bioenergy Research Centers established during the Bush Administration to pioneer advanced techniques in biotechnology, including biofuels.



Private industries will not be very interested because they couldn't care less where rare Earth materials and manufactured goods come from.


@Harvey D:

You have to be kidding.
When China announced export restrictions on RE's there was panic throughout the electronics and car industries as well as others, and they made strenuous efforts to ensure supply.

Companies are allergic to going out of business.


The people in the DOE do what is required to keep their bureaucracy funded for the next 5 years. Funded by our money.

People in industry do what is required as Davemart says to keep their firms profitable.

See the following for just a few publicized events 5 months ago - not 5 years hence:

"China’s advantage erodes in a key area: rare earth minerals",October 26, 2012

... production is expanding at sites outside China.

And as new sources of rare earth minerals have appeared, that has meant new jobs — including in the tiny town of China Grove, N.C., where Japan’s Hitachi Metals is planning to produce high-tech magnets from rare earth minerals.

Colorado-based Molycorp, along with firms in Australia and elsewhere, were reshaping the landscape. Molycorp reopened a rare earth mine in Mountain Pass, Calif., that had been shuttered a decade ago because the supply of the minerals coming from China was so cheap.

See "China's Rare Earth Metals Clampdown Drives New Trade, Mining Ties" 21 Nov 2012

A series of trade agreements in Central and Southeast Asia, announced over the past month, reveal the ways manufacturers and mining conglomerates are coping with potential shortages


DM...that's the way many were going 4 years ago. It took $2T+ public $$ to keep them alive.

What would have happened if the Big 3 + Big Banks + Big Insurances +Big others etc had gone under as they deserved?


@Harvey D:

The financial crisis has got very little to do with the supply of rare earths, but your point that the banks seemed not adverse to going out of business is countered by the fact that they didn't, as the financial sector is far better connected than manufacturing and so they could rightly reckon that they would be bailed out.

A google search on the subject of rare earths and what companies have done to reduce their use since China announced restrictions would provide reams of evidence that vigorous action was taken and is being taken.

For instance in the last few days Nissan announced that their 2013 Leaf uses, from memory, 40% less rare earths than the earlier model.


The private sector does what is most profitable, NOT what is in the best interests of the country. The sooner we realize this the sooner we can make some real long term progress.


Is this sarcasm?

The private sector should and has always done what is most profitable, NOT what is in the best interests of the country.

Adults that do not realize this are (I hope) fewer in number and arguably less sentient than those that deny evolution.

Do teachers strike, not really for more pay, but so kids have more time to catch up on their homework?

Do truck drivers drive not for pay but because they think the country needs more pot holes?

All utterly without logical basis.

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