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Karl Gschneidner Jr., chief scientist of the Critical Materials Institute, feels vindicated by the newly created Department of Energy research hub. The CMI will address solutions to domestic shortages of rare-earth materials through a collaboration of academia, national laboratories and industry. It’s an idea that Gschneidner has been steadily and vocally promoting the last four years.

“This was government listening and responding,” says the senior metallurgist with Ames Laboratory and a 61-year researcher of rare-earth metals. “I jumped for joy when I heard the news about the Hub.”

What began as a concern about the rare-earth materials supply for industries that relied on them — automobile, electronics, and defense technologies — emerged as a national energy and defense security challenge.  Gschneidner claims no special insider predictions.

Image“I think awareness, including mine, evolved,” Gschneidner says of the issue as it became apparent about four years ago to the western world that China, which produced 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earths, intended to export less and less in order to meet its own internal needs.

“It certainly wasn’t a Eureka moment. I wasn’t even in on it that early, really, because I’m a researcher. I’m not involved in the production end,” he says. “But I remember meeting with some people in Washington who told me ‘every single one of our weapons systems depends on rare-earth materials, and take a look at what’s happening in China.’ It was an eye-opener, I tell you.”

Gschneidner started spreading the word and knew public education was foremost. Gschneidner has published 500 research papers over six decades studying a group of metals that most people have never heard of outside of their foggy memories of the periodic table in their high school science textbook.

“Europium, neodymium, gadolinium. The public is mostly unaware that these materials even exist,” he explains. “But they use them in their cars, their electronics, and their computers every single day and they don’t even know it. Consumers take these things for granted, but I think that is  gradually changing with more media coverage of this issue.”

Media attention to the issue garnered Gschneidner some high-profile press over the last five years, not only in industry publications like Magnetics Business and Technology, but also in magazines directed at mass audiences like National Geographic and Popular Mechanics.

“I talked to anyone who would listen,” Gschneidner says of his message. Finally, in 2010, some of the listeners included members of the U.S. Congress House Subcommittee on Science and Technology. In his testimony, he urged legislators to invest in the scientific research and technology development needed to return the U.S. to rare-earth materials independence. He proposed a research center much like the Critical Materials Institute that emerged, finally, in 2013.

Gschneidner, long a part of the Ames Laboratory’s international reputation in materials science, also believes it is the best place for that to happen.

“The Ames Laboratory’s heritage in rare-earth metal research had a lot to do with being chosen to lead the Hub. It’s certainly the reason why so many other organizations wanted to partner with us in our proposal. But I don’t want to give the impression that the DOE simply handed it to us because of our reputation.  It was a competitive situation. We will have to prove ourselves, and we will.”

Gschneidner expects to play an advisory role in shaping the research goals  of the Critical Materials Institute, but he declined to make predictions about the next big scientific breakthrough in rare-earth materials and processes.

“All I can tell you about the future is that it’s here, now,” he says. “It could go this way or that way, but you don’t know until you have a breakthrough, and those often come in the most unexpected places. That’s the fascination of science.”

Gschneidner and other CMI leadership members have plans to make sure those breakthroughs become innovation, through revival of the Rare-earth Information Center, a service and publication of the Ames Laboratory that ceased in 2002.

“What we do at the Critical Materials Institute has to be shared. Basic research can’t be left in a void; it needs to go to technical people who can say, ‘hey, I can use that for this product or that process.’ ”

“That’s what these research Hubs are for. Some of the projects will be successful. Some won’t. But putting research dollars and scientific talent together in one concerted effort, that’s going to bring us more progress than otherwise. The CMI is absolutely the best shot we’ve got.”

~ by Laura Millsaps