Rare Earths Innovation Hub Will Power Up In Iowa

Wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, energy-efficient lighting – all these good things typically require rare earth metals and other critical materials whose long-term ready availability is far from certain. That’s why the U.S. Department of Energy is making its newest Energy Innovation Hub the Critical Materials Institute, which the DOE on Wednesday announced will be built at Ames Laboratory in Iowa.

“The Critical Materials Institute will bring together the best and brightest research minds from universities, national laboratories and the private sector to find innovative technology solutions that will help us avoid a supply shortage that would threaten our clean energy industry as well as our security interests,” David Danielson, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, said in a statement.

critical materials hub rare earth metals

Europium is a rare earth used in fluorescent lightbulbs. (image via Ames Laboratory)

Mind you, the issue here isn’t that these critical materials – many of which come out of China – will all be used up.

MIT researchers last year said that while there was no danger of the supply vanishing entirely, over-mining to feed an anticipated massive increase in the clean energy sector in the next 25 years could make the metals more difficult to reach and push the cost of production up to a point where it was no longer viable.

The MIT study looked at 10 so-called rare earth metals, all of which had some uses in high-tech equipment, and in many cases in technology related to low-carbon energy.

Wind power, for example, which is one of the fastest-growing sources of emissions-free electricity, uses magnets that contain the rare earth element neodymium. The MIT team said neodymium demand could increase by as much as 700 percent in the next quarter century.

Even so, they said the earth metal with the biggest question mark hanging over its supply capabilities was dysprosium, an essential ingredient in some electric vehicles’ motors. The report’s authors said demand for dysprosium could increase by a giant 2,600 per cent over the same time.

A conventional car uses just over a pound of rare earth materials – mostly in small motors – but electric cars can use nearly 10 times as much in their lightweight batteries and motors.

A single large wind turbine, meanwhile, rated at about 3.5 megawatts will typically contain about 1,300 pounds of rare earth metals.

The DOE said the Ames hub will will address challenges across the entire life cycle of these materials. Specifically, it said, this means:

  • enabling new sources;
  • improving the economics of existing sources;
  • accelerating material development and deployment;
  • more efficient use in manufacturing;
  • recycling and reuse;
  • and developing strategies to assess and address the life cycles of new materials.

The “hub” concept is a favorite of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, hatched in 2009 to tackle the gnarliest barriers in energy technology. This Critical Materials hub is the fifth to be established of the eight originally envisioned by the secretary, a physicist himself who won a Nobel Prize for work he did at the famous Bell Labs in New Jersey. The hubs set earlier are the Batteries and Energy Storage HubModeling and Simulation for Nuclear Reactors Hub, Fuels from Sunlight Hub and Energy Efficient Buildings Hub.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.