Ames Lab lands Critical Materials Institute

A team led by the Ames Laboratory was selected earlier this month for the Department of Energy's Critical Materials Energy Innovation Hub. DOE announced on Jan. 9 that the Ames Lab and its partners were selected to receive $120 million in funding over five years for what has been named the Critical Materials Institute.

ImageThe Critical Materials Institute will focus on technologies that will make better use of the materials we have access to as well as eliminate the need for materials that are subject to supply disruptions.

These critical materials, including many rare earth elements, are essential for American competitiveness in the clean energy industry.  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 Department’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.

Besides the Ames Laboratory, the team includes partners from three other national laboratories – Idaho National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory – and seven universities – 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 include General Electric, OLI Systems, Inc., SpinTek Filtration, Inc., Advanced Recovery, Cytec, Inc., Molycorp, Inc. and Simbol Materials.

Ames Laboratory Director Alex King, who will serve as the CMI's Ddrector, summarized the job of the Critical Materials Institute as helping the U.S. avoid the impact of materials criticality by doing four separate things:

  • Diversifying supplies. If one source goes offline, we can rely on a different source.
  • Developing substitute materials that can meet needs without using the materials we use today.
  • Developing tools for recycling materials that are needed.
  • Forecasting what materials might become critical in the future.

“The CMI has a number of different partners, but the Ames Laboratory rose to the leadership position because it is uniquely qualified in the most critical materials of the day,” King explained.” The Ames Lab has a six-decade history of working with a group of materials called the rare earths. It has expertise that covers the entire materials life cycle. The CMI protects the current technologies that everybody seems to rely on today, and new technologies that may emerge.”

Ames Lab and CMI Director Alex King explains the CMI to the Ames Economic Development Commission on Jan. 25.

ImageOrganizationally, the CMI will have the pictured structure to address those four areas. As noted, Karl Gschneidner will serve as Chief Scientist; Iver Anderson and Deb Covey will lead Technology Deployment and Commercialization, respectively; and Tom Lograsso will lead the effort in Crosscutting Research. Lisa Rodgers will head day-to-day operations and Mike Porter will oversee finances for the CMI.

King also pointed out that the Institute will take a “think tank” approach in assessing changing needs and market forces.

“Communication, particularly between the various innovation hubs, will be vital,” he said. “For example, if the battery technology hub identifies a particular material that’s necessary to bring a new more efficient battery to market, we’ll be involved in looking at that material’s criticality and how to address those issues. We’ll constantly review and shift resources to where we can get the most bang for the buck.”

The next step in the process is detailed negotiation between the CMI and DOE to iron out various operational details. In the meantime, work is underway to make space available in Wilhelm Hall to house CMI-related staff and operations in a centralized location.

While the overall budget for the CMI is up to $120 million over five years, only a portion of that funding will stay at the Ames Laboratory. The first year, Ames Lab will receive roughly $2.9 million in operating funds and about $6.8 million for capital expenditures. In subsequent years, operating funds will total from about $5 million to $7 million. At the end of the five years, funding could be renewed for an additional five years based on the performance of the Institute.