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Thursday, 12 January 2012

Broad scientific approach to studying rare earth materials needed to ensure continued deployment of clean energy technologies

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Jan 11, 2012 

The top matrix shows the supply risk and importance to clean energy of certain elements in the short term (present-2015). The bottom matrix shows the medium term (2015-2025). (Source: DOE)

A few short decades ago, few could have imagined that the world would be seriously concerned over something called dysprosium. Also known as number 66 on the periodic table, dysprosium was once just another element for chemistry students to memorize but is now one of the most sought-after and critically needed materials on the planet.

Belonging to a family of elements known as lanthanides—also called rare earths—dysprosium and other rare earths are used in almost every high-tech gadget and clean energy technology invented in the last 30 years, from smart phones to wind turbines to hybrid cars. Although the United States was self-sufficient in rare earths or obtained them on the free market until the early 2000s, the vast majority are now mined in China and the supply has been subject to fluctuations. The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) aims to change the status quo by reviving the study of these critical materials to better understand how to extract them, use them more efficiently, reuse and recycle them and find substitutes for them.

In its 2011 Critical Material Strategy released last month, the DOE said that “supply challenges for five rare earth metals (dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium) may affect clean energy technology deployment in the years ahead.” It also recommended enhanced training of scientists and engineers to “address vulnerabilities and realize opportunities related to critical materials.”

“If we are going to achieve what we need to do in terms of managing climate change, we absolutely have to fix the materials problem—it’s the linchpin for clean energy technologies,” said Frances Houle, a Berkeley Lab scientist who is Director of Strategic Initiatives in the Chemical Sciences Division. “Because Berkeley Lab is such a broad institution, many of the pieces required are already here. We have the chemistry, the earth science, the materials science, the theory. Not very many institutions can say that.”

Like coal and gold, the rare earths are mined out of the ground. However, in any given ore, they are mixed together with other rare earths. So although they are not actually rare, they are difficult to mine. “They’re in low concentration, and it’s very hard to mine them and separate them out, so it’s challenging and extremely energy-intensive to produce rare earth materials ready for industrial manufacturers; it requires a lot of electricity, water and chemicals,” said Berkeley Lab Senior Scientist David Shuh. “This area of study has been ignored over the last two decades, largely due to insufficient research and development support.”
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