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The crisis we’re now facing with the worldwide shortage of rare earth metals is a case of history repeating itself. That was the message delivered by Critical Materials Institute Director Alex King during a Lunch and Learn session held Aug. 20.
King provided a brief history lesson on the Bronze Age as a backdrop to his talk on critical materials and how the CMI plans to address those problems. Bronze, a combination of tin and copper, was a major advancement for early civilization for use in tools and weapons. It was harder and held a much better edge than plain copper implements and it didn’t corrode.
This technological advance also led to expanded trade throughout the Middle East and Africa which also brought about even wider spread bronze use. As demand increased, the primary source of copper in Cyprus dried up and trade subsequently collapsed along with the civilizations dependent on it.
Archeologists and anthropologists have uncovered a “gap” of about 200 years between this collapse in about 1200 B.C. and the rise of the Iron Age. In that gap, bronze was recycled, emerging power Egypt found alternative copper sources in Africa and improved processing led to the development of iron as a substitute material.
Shift to present day and the scenario is similar. New technologies, many of them energy-related, have developed around rare-earth materials, but shortages of those materials are impacting the effectiveness and/or implementation of those technologies. And demand is growing because on a worldwide basis, the percentage of people considered to be middleclass – those with disposable income – is growing.
For example, King said the transition to high-output T5 fluorescent lamps has been delayed by two years because manufacturers claim that they can’t find enough europium and terbium for the phosphors – the coatings inside the tubes that glow and give off the light. A similar problem is affecting the wind generation industry.
“Most wind turbines use a mechanical gearbox to spin the generators fast enough to generate electricity,” King said. “The problem with this design is that the gearbox can literally explode; the maintenance costs are high and so is the failure rate.”
Direct-drive designs already exist that use only the turbine shaft to drive the generator motor, eliminating the gearbox and the associated problems. But these generator motors require much larger neodymium-based magnets and it’s just not feasible to use that much neodymium and dysprosium.
“There are 33,000 commercial wind turbines today and only 233 of them are direct-drive units,” he said.
Fortunately, it won’t take 200 years to come up with a solution like it did for the Bronze Age, but it still won’t happen overnight.
“If we have a known source of raw material, it still takes at least 10 years to develop a mine to extract the material,” King said.
To deploy a substitute material that already exists, industry still needs an average of four years to make the switch. It takes time to use up existing inventory, do the necessary retooling and establish a new supply chain. And to develop and deploy a NEW substitute material it takes an average of 18 years. The Critical Materials Institute will address this interim period and help ease the transition.
“CMI’s mission is to eliminate materials criticality as an impediment to the commercialization of clean energy technologies for today and tomorrow,” King said. It will do this with a “Three-D” approach of diversifying supply, development of substitutes and driving reuse, recycling and efficient use of materials in manufacturing.
The two guiding principles are to produce more and use less. While that may sound simple, it is the focus for the initial 35 projects that will have the involvement of all 18 CMI partner institutions. This includes making sure the project can make an impact at a key point in the material’s lifecycle and having a commercialization plan in place on day one. And if conditions change, such as increased supply or decreased demand for a particular material, related projects will be terminated and resources shifted to new areas.
To illustrate the approach, King highlighted efforts underway to address the rare-earth phosphor shortage for fluorescent lamps.
On the supply side, phosphate used primarily for fertilizer, is one of the most common and heavily mined materials in the world. While the concentration of rare-earths in phosphate rock is very small (.01 to 0.1 percent), it represents a worthwhile, untapped source simply because of the huge amounts of phosphate being processed – about 220 million tons annually in the world.
CMI is investigating ways to extract those rare earths at different points in the phosphate production process without adding steps or significant cost or time.
On the recycling front, fluorescent tubes and compact fluorescent bulbs are already collected for recycling as a way to keep mercury from being released into the environment. CMI will assess the physical and chemical character of phosphor from such lamps and potential processes for separating rare-earth oxides from this source.
A variety of factors from changing markets, inadequate forecasting tools, and a lack of control at key points in the supply all present challenges.
"Materials can go critical on very short notice," King said. "We can't always see crises coming."
~ by Kerry Gibson
Ames Laboratory physicist Rob McQueeney has been selected as the new Deputy Director for the Neutron Sciences Directorate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, effective Oct. 1, 2013. In his new capacity, McQueeney will develop and direct the scientific user and instrument and neutron source operational programs at the Spallation Neutron Source and the High Flux Isotope Reactor, and will act as a principal driver of the strategic vision for these facilities.
Since 2008, McQueeney has served as Group Leader of the neutron and X-ray scattering program at the Ames Laboratory. In 2011, he was selected for an assignment at the Department of Energy, Scientific User Facilities Division, in the X-ray and Neutron Scattering Facilities Program.
"Rob’s efforts have certainly enhanced our science, reputation, and the external perception of Ames Laboratory in scattering sciences," says Duane Johnson, Ames Laboratory Chief Research Officer. "Fortunately, Rob will maintain his connection to Ames Laboratory, and, in his new position, he will certainly continue to impact science and training of young scientists here and elsewhere. We are sad to see him go, but wish him great success in his new endeavors! We look forward to our continued interactions.
McQueeney joined Iowa State University in 2003 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and an Assistant Scientist at the Ames Laboratory, culminating in promotion to full Professor in 2012. During his tenure at Iowa State and the Ames Laboratory, he was elected as a Fellow of the American Physical Society (2010) and received the Iowa State University Award for Mid-Career Achievement in Research (2011).
Before coming to Ames, he held positions as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Technical Staff Member at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he received the National Nuclear Security Administration Award for Excellence in Research in 2003.
Plans are being finalized for construction of a new Ames Laboratory research facility that will house current and next generation sensitive instruments such as electron and scanning probe microscopes. These instruments allow for detailed description of materials at the atomic level to aid in the discovery and design of novel materials. The nearly $10 million project is being funded through the DOE's Office of Science.
“This state-of-the-art facility will greatly enhance our capability to study and characterize materials at the atomic scale and in turn improve how we are able to support the DOE’s mission,” said Interim Ames Laboratory Director Tom Lograsso. “The quality and impact of Ames Laboratory scientific research has increased our visibility within the DOE and around the world. We see support for this facility as recognition of that hard work.”
Planning for the Sensitive Instrument Facility (SIF) has been in the works for about three years and included an in-depth site survey of five possible locations. The SIF will be built at the Applied Science Complex northwest of the Ames Lab/Iowa State University campus because this site offers "the lowest site vibration levels ever measured” by the consulting firm reviewing the sites. According to Ames Laboratory facilities engineer Steve Carter, the plans should be finalized this fall which will allow the project to be bid in early winter with construction tentatively slated to begin in April or May 2014. Construction is expected take 12-15 months to complete.
The 13,300 square-foot facility will be a straight-forward, rectangular-shaped building, but its rather plain exterior design belies the complexity of creating interior space isolated from vibration or electrical interference. It will have six bays to house sensitive instruments, such as electron microscopes used to reveal atoms and atomic structures. Working at such a small scale, even the slightest disturbance from vibration or electro-magnetic interference will blur the image.
“Isolation is key and we’ve tried to design it to accommodate the next generation of instruments,” Carter said. “We’re talking about instruments so sensitive that the operator will work from a separate control room because the beating of their heart or breathing will cause excess vibration. It’s a very unique and complex building.”
For example, the concrete floors will be approximately two feet thick with vibration dampening layers built in. Similarly, the walls and ceilings will be thick concrete and the instrument bays will be lined with quarter-inch-thick aluminum plate to help create an electro-magnetic barrier. Reinforcing bars in the concrete must be fiberglass, not steel. Likewise, the electrical conduit and even the fasteners used must be non-magnetic (non-ferrous). And the heating and ventilation system must keep the temperature and humidity constant without creating vibration or interference.
“There’s been good input from a lot of players, including the microscopy group and ISU Facilities Planning and Management staff,” Carter said. “And (facilities manager) Mark Grootveld deserves a lot of credit for guiding the overall project.”
The Sensitive Instrument Facility is the first new research facility to be built by the Ames Laboratory in more than 50 years. The last new construction was the Lab’s Technical and Administrative Services Facility, which was completed in 1993.