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DOE to provide $18M for research on rare earth elements or effective substitutes

The US Department of Energy (DOE) will provide up to $18 million for basic research aimed at helping to ensure the continued availability of rare earth elements—or effective substitutes—critical to the functioning of the modern US economy. (LAB 20-2304)

Rare earth elements such as neodymium, praseodymium, lanthanum, and many others are vital to a host of contemporary technological and industrial applications, ranging from magnets in motors and wind turbines, to components of smartphones and computers, to catalysts in the chemical industry.

The research should address the following scientific areas:

  • Physics and Chemistry of Rare Earths: Both theoretical and experimental research are needed to understand the role of rare earth elements, including their electronic structure, in determining the physical and chemical properties of materials and molecules. Development of new theoretical models, with validation by experiments that include state of the art characterization, is needed to accurately account for f-electron properties which will accelerate the design and discovery of materials and molecules that can reduce or eliminate the use of critical elements without the loss of functionality (e.g., magnetism).

  • Novel Materials/Molecular Design and Synthetic Approaches: Hypothesis-driven research is needed for novel design and new synthetic approaches that result in enhanced or novel functionalities and that reduce or eliminate the use of rare earth elements. Research topics include developing techniques that control properties at the atomic level through the preparation, purification, processing, and fabrication of well-characterized materials and molecules with energy relevant functionalities, including catalytic reaction pathways.

  • Advances in Separation Science: New separation principles and approaches, including ligand design, combined driving forces, and/or pathways inspired by biology and geochemistry, are needed to enable innovation and improve the extraction efficiency of rare earths from complex mixtures, such as those derived from ore processing, mine tailings or recycled materials. Approaches may involve multiscale simulation of transport and separation, operando experiments, and data science. Bioinspiration for new separation principles and approaches may be derived from knowledge of microbial mechanisms and processes. However, research approaches that use synthetic biology and organisms (including engineered organisms) will not be responsive.

Increasing the availability of critical materials and discovering alternatives for them is essential to America’s energy security and will also open new avenues for commercial applications. While we’ve seen real progress in this field, both basic and applied research are needed to secure the availability of the resources that are critical for today’s technologies.

—Dr. Chris Fall, Director of DOE’s Office of Science

Planned funding totals $18 million for projects of three years in duration, with $6 million in Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 dollars and outyear funding contingent on congressional appropriations.

The Department’s Office of Science is coordinating the funding opportunity with ongoing applied efforts in critical materials research sponsored across the Department. The aim of the Office of Science is to seek basic science breakthroughs that can ultimately lead to technology development.

This announcement is part of a DOE-wide effort totaling more than $158 million in FY 2020 funding, including $23 million from the Office of Fossil Energy, $104 million from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (including the Critical Materials Institute at Ames Laboratory), $11 million from ARPA-E, and an additional $14 million from Office of Science core research programs in materials sciences and chemistry.

This cross-cutting effort aims to promote research and development of the critical minerals and rare earth elements supply chain.

Critical minerals and rare earth elements are essential to technologies that we use every day from cell phones to lifesaving medical equipment to batteries for electric cars. Unfortunately, the US is heavily dependent on countries like China to supply these critical materials needed to manufacture products that support the US economy. The research and development being done at DOE labs is critical to harnessing our domestic supply of rare earth elements and critical minerals and is key to developing new ways to process and recycle these elements.

—Under Secretary of Energy Mark W. Menezes

DOE national laboratories are invited to submit proposals for breakthrough fundamental research in materials and chemical sciences. Applicants are encouraged to find partners at universities, national laboratories, and other institutions. Awards are expected for both small groups and larger multidisciplinary teams.

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