Shoring Up the Elements of a Clean Tech Economy

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Heard of germanium? How about neodymium? Or terbium? Or rhenium? They’re not extras from a Star Trek film—these are real world elements are some of the rarest members of the periodic table. But as hard as they are to find, these substances are increasingly important to green tech, clean tech and high tech—and the U.S. doesn’t have enough of them. “These elements until the last decade were laboratory curiosities,” says Tom Graedel, a professor of chemical engineering at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. “But they’re central to such technologies as electric cars, wind turbines, solar cells, flat panel display screen and military technologies. They’re energy critical elements.”

Graedel is the co-author of a new report on those energy critical elements (ECE) from the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society that was released today at AAAS. Graedel and his co-author—Robert Jaffe, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—took the stage at AAAS to describe a plan to ensure a sustainable supply of ECEs and rare earths, another set of materials key to clean tech. The report came out against the backdrop of rising fears in the U.S. over Chinese dominance in the rare earth market, where China is estimated to produce as much as 90 to 95% of the world’s rare earths. Unless the U.S. moves to expand production of the elements, husband its resources and look to innovate replacements or recycle existing supplies, there is a real risk that the clean energy economy could falter as it scales up—or the U.S. could find itself trading dependence on foreign oil for dependence on foreign elements. “The problems of ECEs are real and serious,” says Jaffe. “If appropriate steps are not taken we face possible short-term constraints of supply to what could otherwise be game changing energy technologies.”

What are ECEs? They include rare metals like lithium, a vital ingredient for both wind turbines and hybrid cars—and one still produced mostly by China, though there are major deposits in Afghanistan and Bolivia. They include elements like tellurium, a brittle, silvery-white metallic element used in solar panels. And there’s rhenium, a silvery-white metal with a high melting point that is used to make advanced turbines and jet engine parts. What they have in common is that global supplies are limited, in part because the elements rarely form in any concentration, and are instead scattered around the planet.

Despite the dependence of both the high tech and clean tech industries on these elements, the U.S. hasn’t done much to increase its own supply—and in fact, policymakers don’t even have a very good grasp of the global supply of these elements. (Deals are often done commercially, and the data is kept private.) Jaffe and Graedel say that laissez-faire attitude has to change. In their report they urged the federal government to gather and analyze data on ECE across the lifecycle supply chain. They want the government to launch a research and development program focused on expanding ECE supplies and innovating possible substitutes—something that the company GE was able to do when supplies of rhenium ran low. They want industry and the government to recycle ECEs and rare earths as much as possible—even retaking the valuable metals found in tiny increments in your iPhone. “Private industry and government needs to be in the market of enhancing recycling,” says Jaffe. “You need high tech recycling technology.”

Policymakers in Washington are beginning to wake up to the rare earth/ECE deficit. Mark Udall, a Democratic senator from Colorado, recently introduced a bill that would codify most of the report’s suggestion, increasing domestic production of the elements. And China’s strangehold on rare earth production may not last much longer. Molycorp Minerals has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to reopen a closed rare earths mine in Mountain Pass, California. Craig Cogut of Pegasus Capital Advisers, which has invested in Molycorp, believes that the mine could make the U.S. all but self-sufficient for rare earths. “This mine has history and quality,” says Cogut. “And it’s a big reserve—enough to produce 20 to 25% of the world’s supply.”

It will take a lot more than one mine to ensure the U.S. is ready for the clean tech era—although most other ECEs are scattered around the world, so no one country can lock down supplies. That’s a relief—the clean tech era shouldn’t be held hostage to the same geopolitics we suffered through with oil.