Rare earth scarcity gauged by DoE
R Colin Johnson
12/20/2010 9:00 PM EST
PORTLAND, Ore.—A long-awaited report from the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) on rare earth scarcity concludes that in the short term the "clean energy economy" is at risk of supply-chain disruptions. As a result, the study recommends the development of domestic U.S. extraction, processing and manufacturing capabilities as well as cooperative efforts with Japan and Europe to mitigate scarcity worldwide.
The report also promised to follow-up with a more complete U.S. rare-earth development strategy by the end of 2011.
"The DoE’s new strategy closely reflects the direction laid out in the legislation on rare earths my Committee passed through the House last September. Our bipartisan bill would provide ready-made authority for many elements of DoE's strategy," said House Committee on Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon about a bill, H.R. 6160, that has passed in the House, but awaits debate in the Senate. "I've argued for greater international collaboration on issues like this [too] so I commend the Department for making this an important part of its effort going forward."
The DoE study concludes that 20 percent of rare earths are used today for clean energy development, a percentage that will grow even larger, thereby putting wind turbines, electric vehicles, photovoltaic cells and fluorescent lighting at risk of supply-chain disruptions. Five rare earths are of particular concern due not only to their importance to clean energy industries, but also to the already diminishing worldwide stockpiles—dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium. The study also cites shortages of indium, which is not a rare earth but is just as critical and scarce.
Comparison of short- and medium-term criticality to clean energy efforts of rare earths.
With proactive policies and strategic investments, the DoE study (entitled Critical Materials Strategy) predicts that supply-chain disruptions should be minimal in the short term, and remedied altogether in less than 15 years. The long-term strategy aims to diversity the global supply chain as well as to develop substitute technologies that do not require rare earths, and yet meet the need of the emerging clean energy economy. Lastly, the study recommends increased efforts to reuse and recycle rare earths and other critical minerals—such as indium, gallium, tellurium, cobalt and lithium--to mitigate the need for new mining operations.
The study calls out particularly sensitive technologies that need to implement these proactive policies immediately, including the manufacture of rare-earth permanent magnets, advanced batteries, photovoltaic thin-films and phosphors for high-efficiency lighting.