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It’s not surprising that nearly all of today’s advanced technologies rely on equally high-tech materials. Whether it’s the cellphone in your pocket, the hybrid car you drive, or the wind farm down the road that generates your electricity, there are certain materials that are critical to making those various technologies work.
It’s also a simple truth that most of those critical materials, particularly the rare-earth elements, are currently produced in China. Starting in the 1980s, a combination of accessible raw materials, cheap labor and less stringent environmental controls allowed China to develop a monopoly as the supplier of 95 percent of the world’s rare-earth market. However, China is moving from being an exporter of raw materials to using those raw materials itself to produce the finished goods and has reduced rare-earth export quotas in the past two years.

What are Critical Materials?

To address this looming economic threat, the U.S. Department of Energy conducted a study and released the Critical Materials Strategy report in December of 2011.  That report examined the role rare earths and other materials play in clean energy technologies, such as wind turbines, electric vehicles, solar cells and energy efficient lighting. The report found that several clean energy technologies use materials, particularly the rare earths dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium, which are at risk of supply disruptions in the short term, perhaps as early as 2016.The DOE listed these materials as “critical” materials. Two others, lithium and tellurium, were identified as being “near critical” materials.

ImageIn response to the report’s findings, DOE proposed establishing a Critical Materials Energy Innovation Hub in May 2012 “to reduce materials criticality, prevent criticality of new materials that are essential for energy technologies and coordinate research and development across the entire materials lifecycle.”  Like the other Innovation Hubs established to address solar energy, improved nuclear reactors, better batteries, and energy-efficient building design, the Critical Materials Hub would be a major integrated research center. Researchers from many different institutions and technical backgrounds would work collaboratively in a team setting modeled after the Manhattan Project.

The CMI is Born
In January, after a competitive grant proposal process, DOE announced that a group led by the Ames Laboratory was selected for this latest innovation hub, receiving $120 million over five 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, 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. (See Partner Profiles on page 8).

CMI Director Alex King summarized the job of the Critical Materials Institute as helping the United States avoid the impact of materials criticality by doing four things:

  • Diversifying supplies. If one source goes offline,other sources would be available.
  • Developing substitute materials that can meet needs without using the materials in use today.
  • Developing tools for recycling materials that are needed.
  • Forecasting what materials might become critical in the future.

The CMI has research teams in each of those areas. Bruce Moyer, group leader of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Chemical Separations Group, is heading up the diversification efforts. Adam Schwartz, Condensed Matter Physics Division Leader at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, will lead the team search for substitute materials. Recycling efforts will be led by Eric Peterson,  who is involved in polymer research and heads the Process Science and Technology Business Line at the Idaho National Laboratory. Ames Laboratory interim director and crystal growth expert Tom Lograsso will lead the crosscutting research team, which includes supply chain and economic forecasting. (Turn to page 12 to hear how each of these leaders expects to address their part of the overall puzzle.)

 

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Think Tank Approach
“We’ll be taking a ‘think tank’ approach to critical materials,” King says, “which is a departure from the traditional approach to materials research. We’ll be looking at the entire supply chain and how each of these areas affects the others and the end result as well as assessing changing needs and market forces.”

That includes closer than usual collaboration with the other innovation hubs and research centers throughout the country and the world. Such collaboration is mandated by the Federal Critical Materials Coordination Council, an offshoot of a larger federal government effort aimed at improving the effectiveness of scientific research through dissemination of information and coordination of research efforts.

“Communication, particularly between the various innovation hubs, will be vital,” King says. “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.”

 

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In addition to the teams mentioned, CMI will also have an educational/outreach component, headed up by Nigel Middleton, Colorado School of Mines Senior Vice President for Strategic Enterprises. Chief scientist is Ames Lab senior metallurgist Karl Gschneidner Jr., a recognized international expert on rare earths. Gschneidner’s testimony before a House subcommittee in 2010 helped bring attention to the issue of materials criticality (turn to page 15 to read more about Gschneidner).

And helping move technologies or innovations from the lab bench to industry will be Ames Lab’s Associate Director for Sponsored Research Administration Debra Covey and Ames Lab senior metallurgist Iver Anderson. Ames Lab has a proven track record as a top producer among the national laboratories in terms of patents and the generation of royalty income. For example, Anderson’s lead-free solder formula was patented worldwide by more than 60 companies and generated well over $35 million in royalties.

Ames Lab will also provide general support staff and administration of the Institute will take place in Ames.

“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 explains. “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.”