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How The Department Of Energy Plans To Wean The U.S. Off Rare Earth Metals

Rare earth metals—a group of 17 chemical elements found in solar panels, wind turbines, electric car motors, lithium-ion batteries, and more—are critical to a future reliant on clean energy. The problem is that China has the majority of the supply, and it has used that leverage to slow exports and raise prices. The U.S. is working on building up rare earth production sites, but the Department of Energy is sinking millions of dollars into an alternative: rare earth alternatives.

The DOE announced $156 million in clean energy technology funding this week, including 15 research projects that focus on what the organization calls Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies for Energy (REACT). The projects include electric vehicle motors containing little or no rare earth metals, a manganese-based replacement for rare earth magnets found in wind turbines and electric vehicles, a cerium-based replacement for rare earth magnets, and a carbide-based composite replacement for rare earth magnets.

Why so many magnet replacements? Small, light, and powerful rare earth magnets are found in most audio speakers, computer hard drives, wind turbine generators, electric cars, and even self-powered flashlights. In other words, if our supply of rare earth elements gets cut off, we're in trouble.

All of the funding comes from the DOE's ARPA-E program, which invests in high-risk, high-payoff clean technology (the program is based on DARPA). Post-Solyndra, many people may be skeptical of the DOE's investments. But without rare earth metal alternatives, the U.S. won't just lack new clean energy technology; it one day may not have the infrastructure to even support today's gadgets.

[Image: Flickr user Argonne National Laboratory]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • John Howley

    There is a huge difference between funding basic research and funding private companies.  When the government funds basic research, it takes on a task that the private capital is usually unwilling to fund.  It is also acting in an area where private capital does not have greater expertise (as opposed to commercialization of technologies, where private capital does have greater expertise).  Funding basic research also helps provide financial support for critical research universities and advance the knowledge of our next generation of research scientists, scholars, and students even if the specific research ultimately lead to a commercialized invention.  And basic research advances are more likely to be licensed broadly than discoveries by private companies.

    John Howley

  • J Blair

    So if rare earths are so important.( audio speakers, computer hard drives, wind turbine generators, electric cars, and even self-powered flashlights)
    Then why are they not trying to recycle what we are already throwing out?If there was a box at my recycling center, I would use it.
    I recycle ,glass,plastic,cardboard,aluminum,copper and metal anyway.
    Simple solution.
    Cheap, just drop off a new box that says rare earths HERE and then tell people what goes in it.
    Lower cost than DOE fantasy of rare earth alternative that can be made cheap enough for any application that could then be sold profitably.
    The DOE has been asleep at the wheel for years ,so no they want to catch up? fa get about it.

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Good to see the DoE is working on finding alternatives, both tot the benefit of our economy and our national security. I agree with Allen's assertion that we should ALSO be developing a rare earth industry in the US, and in friendly countries (China is really neither friend nor foe, but a keen competitor, and we would be foolish to trust their benevolence)

    David Kaiser, PhD
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  • Allen Kruse

    So all the Department of Energy has done is show once again on how to make bad policy decisions.

    Instead of pushing for innovations in making Domestic Production of Rare Earth Elements possible - they say we must get off them completely.  While turning around and spending billions in loan guarantees and other subsidies towards solar technology utilizing CIGS or CdTe, where Rare Earth Elements in some/most cases are thousands of times more abundant in the earth's crust.

    There are vast supplies of Rare Earth Elements in mineable quantities spread all throughout the United States - all we need is the support to make it a reality.  Seeing as a lot of Rare Earth Elements are used in the defense industry - I would think it was also a National Security interest to see Domestic Supply happen.

    Post-Solyndra - I would be skeptical about anything DoE has to say in regards to investments - this article showcases why.

  • Allen Kruse

    Ariel I agree we need alternatives - and we should be working towards it.  I completely am in agreement with that.

    But at the same time - the DoE is trying to steer in the direction of not merely alternatives - but a complete and utter "cold turkey" from all Rare Earth Elements.  This is bad policy.  

    Domestic supply chains could be up and running in sufficient quantities within 5 years (or less) - if the same amount of cash that is being thrown at companies like Solyndra and Abound, was being made available to companies like Molycorp, Rio Tinto, and Quantum Rare Earth Resources.