A leading group of American scientists has joined together
to urge the federal government to secure
future supplies of rare earths and other elements critical to the development of
new technologies to ensure U.S. energy independence.
comes as efforts to develop new energy technologies intensify and China starts
to control supplies of many critical elements.
"Our report outlines a plan that can help the U.S. take control
of its energy future," says Robert Jaffe, professor of physics at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and co-chair of the study group. "No country can mine
its way to ECE (energy-critical elements) independence. Instead, we need to
develop an integrated approach to securing supplies of these key materials."
The report is a
combined effort by the American
(APS) and the Materials
In general, the committee does not recommend that the
federal government establish non-defense-related economic stockpiles of the
critical materials, with the exception of helium.
Helium is found in economically viable quantities only in
natural gas reservoirs, occurring at levels as high as 7 percent. Natural gas
is extracted from reservoirs at a rapidly increasing rate with helium being
vented to the atmosphere.
Helium liquefies at the lowest temperature of all elements
and does not solidify, making it important for cryogenic applications. Also, helium is the only element that cannot
be rendered radioactive by exposure to radiation. Helium is also the fluid of
choice for advanced nuclear reactor design. Other critical elements include:
- Gallium, germanium, indium, selenium, silver and
tellurium: All employed in advanced photovoltaic solar cells, especially
- Dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium, samarium
and cobalt: Used in high-strength permanent magnets for many energy-related
applications, such as wind turbines and hybrid automobiles.
- Most rare earth elements, valued for their
unusual magnetic and/or optical properties. Examples include gadolinium for its
unusual paramagnetic qualities and europium and terbium for their role in
managing the color of fluorescent lighting. Yttrium is an important ingredient
in energy-efficient solid-state lighting and lasers.
- Lithium and lanthanum: Used in high performance
- Platinum and palladium used as catalysts in fuel
cells that may find wide applications in transportation. Cerium is also used as
an auto-emissions catalyst.
- Rhenium, used in high performance alloys for
A bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall
of Colorado (the Critical
Minerals and Materials Promotion Act of 2011) makes recommendations similar to
those found in the report.
"It's vital that we take steps today that will stabilize the
market for energy-critical materials and ensure we have a sustainable supply in
the future," Udall says. "The APS-MRS report and my bill provide a solid
foundation that, when implemented, will help U.S. companies globally compete in
emerging energy industries that are essential to strengthening U.S. economic
and national security."
A focal point is a recommendation to establish a research
and development effort focused on energy-critical elements and possible
substitutes that can enhance vital aspects of the supply chain, including:
geological deposit modeling, mineral extraction and processing, material
characterization and substitution, utilization, manufacturing, recycling and