Two years ago the Critical Materials Institute launched as a diverse group of researchers committed to an ambitious idea: that bringing together the best scientific minds from national labs, universities, and industry could move research on rare-earth metals quickly through its paces and on to marketable technologies, shortening development time by years if not decades.
It was a challenge posed by the U.S. Department of Energy, which established CMI as an Energy Innovation Hub to address the very real possibility of shortages in rare-earth and other materials necessary for clean energy technologies like wind turbines, electric vehicles, efficient lighting, advanced batteries, and other products used by Americans every day.
Led by the Ames Laboratory and combining an expanding partnership program with precise research mapping, CMI has more than doubled its research accomplishments in its second year, bringing the total number of invention disclosures to 34. This week CMI heads into its annual research planning meeting for the upcoming third year, hosted this year at partner research facility Idaho National Laboratory.
“Are we in the right place on progress? I think so,” said CMI Director Alex King. “In order to prepare for and respond to materials crises in the future, we need to be able to develop solutions on this time scale reliably and repeatedly, and we’ve demonstrated that it can be done.”
According to Ames Laboratory Associate Director and CMI’s commercialization administrator Deb Covey, the Hub is well positioned for the next steps toward successful technology transfer, with nine patent applications and a commercial licensing agreement, and more in the works.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of patent disclosures in the first two years, and I expect we’ll see further momentum toward commercializing these technologies in our third year.” Covey said.
Covey and other CMI leadership credit the industry partnership and membership program— one that is unique among Department of Energy organizations— for the speed at which CMI is gaining on inventions and tech transfer.
“We wanted to facilitate communication among national laboratories, academic institutions, and companies, because often R&D groups don’t talk to groups at other types of organization; they work independently most of the time,” said Rod Eggert, Deputy Director of CMI and a professor at the Colorado School of Mines.
King, Eggert, and Covey consider that communication essential to the success of CMI, both in shortening the typical lead time to new materials and technologies from over a decade to just a few years, and in closing what has often been seen as a perennial and stubborn gap between basic and applied sciences.
“Often new ideas coming out of basic research end up getting stuck in the mud along the way to commercialization, because basic and applied researchers didn’t talk to one another sufficiently. We like to think we changed that dynamic with this organization,” said Eggert.
“Working with our industry partners at every step of the research planning, we’re able to consistently focus on the economic and manufacturing feasibility of the technology we’re developing. It is a better model for successfully deploying them commercially,” said Covey.
CMI has remained focused on its five-year scientific mission to diversify supplies, develop substitutes, and increase reuse of existing rare-earth and other critical materials, despite a rare-earth metals economy that has seen upheavals since the beginning of the organization’s existence, including both steep increases and steep declines in market values.
But that is something, CMI experts say, they were prepared to see.
“The market environment is very turbulent for metals that have specialized applications, and rare earths are certainly in that category,” said Eggert, who heads up CMI’s economic and supply chain analysis related to its scientific mission. “They’re more fragile in the sense that for any number of reasons—a limited number of producers, a limited number of end users, the loss of an existing use or the development of a new use— demand or supply can be dramatically influenced in a very short period of time.”
King said CMI was focused instead on the near distant future.
“We’re tasked with keeping an eye on what we expect supply and demand to look like in the 10- to 20-year time frame,” said King. “That means you have to smooth out or ignore a lot of bumps in the market. At CMI we think that even if prices are down today and supply and demand seem in balance, we could very easily be in a shortage situation in a few years.”
That’s in keeping with CMI’s scientific-eye view of the growing and varied uses of rare-earth metals not just in the United States, but globally. As the world’s use of specialized magnets in various technologies grows, the need for rare-earth metals to manufacture them will also expand.
“It is not at all clear whether there is a robust enough supply chain to sustain this growth,” said King. “What the world really needs is a diverse supply chain, good alternative materials, and good recycling methods. And that is exactly what CMI is working on.”