Critical Material Shortages Ahead
Between October 2010 and November 2011, the United States Department of Energy (DoE) conducted a series of workshops that brought together experts to address the issue of Critical Materials shortages. By “critical materials” the DoE means rare earth elements or REE. The purpose of the meetings, and the research that went on in conjunction with them, was to identify potentially disruptive shortages of some 16 materials critical to a clean-energy economy. Of those 16, five were deemed to be at risk between now and 2014: dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium.
What’s so important about these rather obscure metals? They are the key to a host of more efficient, cleaner energy technologies that include wind turbines, hybrid and electric car batteries and motors, CFL lighting, and photovoltaic panels (see graphs on page 5), to name just a few. And it isn’t just treehugger technologies that are involved. Samarium, for example, is not only used to absorb neutrons in nuclear power plants, but SmCo magnets are critical to both industrial and military applications, including precision-guided weapons. They are also necessary in the manufacture of gas turbines, both for power generation and in jet aircraft engines.
Electric vehicles are heavily dependent on neodymium for the powerful permanent magnet motors that power them, as are wind turbine generators. Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries require several RREs, including lathanum, cerium and craseodymium, as well as nickel, cobalt, manganese and aluminum.
The issue of REE supplies came to the fore in 2010 when Chinese officials announced a temporary embargo of them to Japan due to a diplomatic tiff between the two. This was followed by the revelation that the government in Beijing was exploring the gradual reduction of REE exports given the growing demand for these materials inside China. With the liberalized Communist nation holding a virtual monopoly on these metals, governments around the world began looking for alternatives, including the U.S. DoE. Britain’s Geological Society studied the matter and concluded, “Rare earth elements will continue to be of considerable interest for the foreseeable future, with demand likely to grow. While market mechanisms should ensure that serious shortages are averted, at least in the long term, there may be significant short-term disruptions to the supply of some REE, especially HREE, and price instability.” [http://www.geolsoc.org.uk/ree].
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