“Ree”-Examining Rare Earth Elements

Here in Boston for the National Conference of State Legislatures’ 2017 Legislative Summit, I’ve enjoyed attending several informational sessions on current topics in energy and environmental policy. It’s been an honor to meet and talk with dozens of state legislators from all over the country.

Rightly so, the legislators, their staff and energy leaders are asking future-focused questions and trying to imagine together what the utility of the future will look like. Many of the panels and forums touched on exciting developments in battery storage and renewable energy technologies.

State legislators could also benefit from tactical discussions about how to reach the utility of the future, while stimulating U.S. innovation and economic growth. A timely topic came to mind this week: How is the U.S. planning for manufacturing clean energy technologies without over-relying on supply chains that include potentially hostile foreign governments, or scarce resources such as rare earth elements (REEs) and other now-precious metals such as lithium?

REEs tend to have unpronounceable names, and prove hard to extract and process, yet are increasingly needed for new technologies, from iPhones to electric car batteries and LEDs. Theses minerals and other metals and compounds are increasingly foundational components for the utility and grid of the future. Lithium-ion batteries are perhaps the most commonly used example, but many other technologies in energy and daily life rely on REEs.

For those new to the issue, the U.S Geological Survey offers a helpful 4-page document listing REEs by name, describing some common uses and flagging issues in recovery and processing of REEs. Despite many known REE deposits, the global supply of REEs is limited by the cost and complexity of exploring REE deposits and developing REE mines, including REE extraction and separation facilities.

In 2011, PACE reported on rising prices and foreign monopoly control of rare earth element supply and pricing problem. We shared the example of neodymium, an element needed in surprising amounts in high-capacity wind turbines. A core concern then – China’s dominance of the global REE supply – remains today and may be exacerbated by the coming demand boom for electric vehicles with batteries, large-scale wind projects, LED-lighting, and more.

Over the past decade, alarmed by China’s aggression on rare earth supplies, many voices have raised REE concerns, including the Congressional Research Service, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy. Others say that “rare” is a misnomer, pointing out that REEs are present in many places around the globe. Those who wish to minimize REE concerns tout that technology advances aimed at developing batteries that use wholly different materials, along with recycling programs, can reduce U.S. dependence on other nations’ output and willingness to trade fairly in REEs. The financial markets seem to be paying closer attention to metals prices and geopolitical nuances, especially after leading automakers’ announcements of plans to produce only electric vehicles in just a few short years.

While the debate continues, the U.S. government is taking concrete steps to increase useful research and development into REEs and other alloys needed to bring about the energy technology revolution.

The Ames Laboratory, part of the Department of Energy’s national labs system, now operates the Critical Materials Institute. CMI partners with industry and academia to study REE issues, explaining its mission as follows:

“Actual or threatened shortages of essential raw materials create risks for U.S. manufacturing and energy security. Nascent industries, including the clean energy sector, are particularly vulnerable. Rare earth elements, with essential roles in high-efficiency motors and advanced lighting, are the most prominent of the critical materials today. Rare earth metals and alloys are not produced in the United States, despite the availability of geologic resources, because the processes required to separate individual rare earths from one another and then convert them to metals and alloys are inefficient, costly, polluting, and potentially damaging to worker health and safety. The solution is innovation throughout the rare earth supply chain.”

In a great example of stimulating innovation through the supply chain, earlier this summer, the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy announced a $6.9 million investment in research aimed at producing salable rare earth elements (REEs) from domestic coal and coal by-products. These projects expand upon a body of REE research ongoing at the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

There’s a lot more to the clean energy materials and supply chain debate than PACE can answer or even flag in one weekly blog, but it seems increasingly important to re-examine the issues and advocate for more attention to the topic. Kudos to the Department of Energy for directing its own scarce money and personnel resources to our collective store of knowledge. If you’d like to contribute to the debate, or highlight research that can alleviate rare earth and other metals concerns, let us know by emailing so we can ree-examine the topic.