U.S. urged to safeguard supply of 'energy-critical elements'

By Brian Vastag
Sunday, February 20, 2011

They are rarer than gold, but they are essential for a broad range of new-energy technologies such as electric cars, wind turbines and solar cells.

Researchers call them "energy-critical elements," and a report urges the U.S. government to take swift steps to safeguard the supply of 25 of them - elements from odd slices of the periodic table and often odder corners of the globe.

"A shortage of any of these elements could significantly impact the large-scale deployment of new energy technologies," said Thomas Graedel of Yale University, a co-author of the report released Friday by the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society. The report was unveiled at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

On Thursday, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) introduced a bill directing the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct a study of the issue, a broad inquiry that would, among other things, track the global supply chain of these elements, which are often produced as byproducts of mining more abundant minerals, such as copper. The bill also calls on the Department of Energy to help secure a steady supply of the elements.

"With the importance of these materials for defense and the development of a robust clean-energy industry, it's now vital that we rebuild our domestic rare-earths industry," Udall said.

Already, the issue has gained traction in the Senate and the White House, and among members of both major political parties.

The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy is coordinating a cross-agency governmental response. A subcommittee of the Cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council will steer the effort.

No shortages are imminent, said Robert Jaffe, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-author of the report released Friday. But so little information is available about the supply and market for these materials that corporations and government agencies are unable to plan for securing a supply, he said.

"We are concerned at a fairly high level about a good chunk of the periodic table, about a third of it," Jaffe said.

In recent years, concern has focused on the supply of so-called rare-earth elements - which include lanthanum, cerium and neodymium - as China produces about 95 percent of them, Graedel said.

The new report adds a dozen other elements to the rare earths, collecting them under the heading "energy-critical elements."

"These elements could be considered lab curiosities until about a decade ago," Graedel said.

Since then, demand has exploded. Cellphones and iPods contain as many as 65 elements, many of them rare. Electric car batteries also rely on rare elements, as do blades for wind- and gas-powered turbines. The insides of energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs are coated with tiny amounts of two such elements, terbium and europium.

The report advises against strategic stockpiling by the federal government. In the past, Jaffe said, stockpiling has stifled the incentive to develop substitute materials. Also, as the United States lacks most of these elements in significant quantities, the country cannot "mine its way out of this problem," Jaffe said.

Instead, the report urges comprehensive research into the entire supply chain of these elements, encourages research into substitute materials and calls on the federal government to launch a recycling program.

"Energy-critical elements are literally more precious than gold, but we treat them like trash," Jaffe said.

Cellphones and iPods end up in landfills despite containing more of these elements, pound for pound, than the ore they are extracted from. Still, a recycling program won't be enough, the report warns, as much of the materials will be locked up in electric car batteries and wind turbine blades for decades.

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