Securing America’s Supply of Critical Materials and Rare Earth Elements: Implications for Renewable Energy



Speakers (l-r): Larry Meinert, Mark Johnson, Kate Johnson, Dudley Kingsnorth, Andy Davis

Securing America’s Supply of Critical Materials and Rare Earth Elements: Implications for Renewable Energy

Friday, March 11, 2011
2:00 - 3:30 p.m.
HVC 201 Capitol Visitor Center


On March 11, 2011, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing on critical materials, including rare earth elements (REE) and strategic metals. These materials are essential for technologies used in a variety of applications such as cell phones, computers, cars, airplanes, batteries, and renewable energy systems – and therefore critical to our national security and economy. The United States is not self-sufficient in most of these critical materials, and for many of them we are reliant on foreign sources prone to disruption. For example, more than 97 percent of the U.S. and world supply of REE comes from China, and this supply has been restricted recently for several reasons, including political pressure. This briefing addressed the current supply of critical materials, including the newest developments from China, and policy opportunities to strengthen American expertise in the occurrence, discovery, extraction, processing, and recycling of these commodities. Speakers for this event included:

  • Larry Meinert, Fellow, Office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ)
  • Mark Johnson, Program Manager, ARPA-E, U.S. Department of Energy
    Presentation (pdf format)
  • Kate Johnson, Mineral Resources Program Coordinator, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
  • Dudley Kingsnorth, Executive Director, Industrial Minerals Company of Australia (IMCOA)
    Presentation (pdf format)
  • Andy Davis, Manager of Public Affairs, Molycorp Minerals
    Presentation (pdf format)

Click below to download reports mentioned at the briefing:
U.S. Department of Energy Critical Materials Strategy
List of USGS Publications on Rare Earth Elements
USGS Mineral Commodities Summary 2011
USGS Report: China's Rare-Earth Industry


Audio recording of briefing and Q&A (mp3)



Highlights from Speaker Presentations

  • The term “critical materials” describes naturally-occurring earth elements that play a critical role in advanced technologies for batteries, lighting, motors, energy systems, electronics, and many other uses, especially technologies involving magnets. Some of these materials are rare earth elements (REEs), which are 17 elements on the periodic table that have similar physical and chemical properties. Despite their name, they are relatively abundant in the earth’s crust but do not frequently occur in large concentrations.
  • Non-REE critical materials include lithium, which is currently used for batteries and other technologies. Some elements are critical to current industrial and technology applications, while others may be used in technologies yet to be developed. For example, molybdenum had little commercial value until the technology to use it in steel alloys was developed.
  • REEs allow for miniaturization and help improve efficiency, performance, and reliability in a variety of technologies.
  • REEs differ in their importance to clean energy technologies and their supply risks. Five REEs are of particular concern: dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium, and yttrium.
  • China currently dominates the production and processing for many critical materials — up to 97 percent of the world’s supply of some materials comes from China. Low-cost competition has driven companies in the United States and other countries out of the market, but companies such as Molycorp have stayed in business selling materials from stockpiles and are now planning to restart mining and processing operations in select areas.
  • Supply and demand for many materials is out of balance — with some materials undersupplied, which has driven up prices, and other materials oversupplied. Increasing and diversifying supplies begins with identifying new sources, but also includes diversification of the entire supply chain — from mining to final processing.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), in collaboration with industry and other federal agencies, have been working on numerous strategies to address critical materials supply and demand issues. The ideal solution would be to develop technologies that substitute more common materials, but this is difficult to achieve. Other strategies include aggressive recycling, more efficient processes for recovering and separating critical materials from ore and waste streams, and developing technologies that can reduce the required amount of REE (e.g. better insulating materials in electric vehicle motors can help reduce need for soft magnets).
  • The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) publishes numerous information resources for both technical and non-technical audiences that assess where critical materials may be found and recovered worldwide. USGS publishes a concise profile for each individual element, which can be downloaded at http://minerals.usgs.gov/products/#fs.
  • USGS has increased its estimates of Chinese reserves of REE from 36 million metric tons to 55 million metric tons.
  • The Industrial Minerals Corporation of Australia (IMCOA) is a leader in assessing REE and critical material resources around the world, and is an important resource and advocate for strategies to diversify supplies for critical materials. A hard-copy report providing an overview of global REE issues can be obtained by sending an email to Dudley Kingsnorth at djk@imcoa.com.au.
  • Workforce development will be needed to ensure U.S. capacity to locate and produce REE.
  • Despite today's high prices, it does not make much sense economically to recycle small quantities of REEs (like the amount found in cell phones).


Related Media Coverage


Background

In 2010, the House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation (H.R. 6160) that would have established a program within the Department of Energy (DOE) for research and development of REE throughout their life cycle, and broaden existing loan guarantee programs to spur private investment in REE. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced similar legislation in the Senate (S. 3521). In the 112th Congress, bipartisan sponsors in the House and Senate plan to introduce legislation to support education and research to rebuild and maintain American expertise in critical materials. In addition, the DOE’s budget request for FY 2012 would create a new Energy Innovation Hub focusing on REE.


For more information, contact us at policy [at] eesi.org or (202) 662-1883.



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