Energy Critical Elements: Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies
A number of chemical elements that were once laboratory curiosities now figure prominently in new technologies like wind turbines, solar energy collectors, and electric cars. If widely deployed, such inventions have the capacity to transform the way we produce, transmit, store, or conserve energy. To meet our energy needs and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, novel energy systems must be scaled from laboratory, to demonstration, to widespread deployment.
Energy-related systems are typically materials intensive. As new technologies are widely deployed, significant quantities of the elements required to manufacture them will be needed. However, many of these unfamiliar elements are not presently mined, refined, or traded in large quantities, and, as a result, their availability might be constrained by many complex factors. A shortage of these “energy-critical elements” (ECEs) could significantly inhibit the adoption of otherwise game-changing energy technologies. This, in turn, would limit the competitiveness of U.S. industries and the domestic scientific enterprise and, eventually, diminish the quality of life in the United States.
ECEs include rare earths, which received much media attention in recent months, but potentially include more than a dozen other chemical elements. The ECEs share common issues and should be considered together in developing policies to promote smooth and rapid deployment of desirable technologies.
Several factors can contribute to limiting the domestic availability of an ECE. The element might simply not be abundant in Earth’s crust or might not be concentrated by geological processes. An element might only occur in a few economic deposits worldwide, or production might be dominated by and, therefore, subject to manipulation by one or more countries. The United States already relies on other countries for more than 90% of most of the ECEs we identify. Many ECEs have, up to this point, been produced in relatively small quantities as by-products of primary metals refining. Joint production complicates attempts to ramp up output by a large factor. Because they are relatively scarce, extraction of ECEs often involves processing large amounts of material, sometimes in ways that do unacceptable environmental damage. Finally, the time required for production and utilization to adapt to fluctuations in price and availability of ECEs is long, making planning and investment difficult.This report surveys these potential constraints on the availability of ECEs and then identifies five specific areas of potential action by the United States to insure their availability:
- Federal agency coordination;
- Information collection, analysis, and dissemination;
- Research, development, and workforce enhancement;
- Efficient use of materials; and,
- Market interventions.
Throughout this report, narratives on particular ECEs are provided to clarify these five action areas. The report’s specific recommendations can be found in their entirety in Section 4.
About APS & POPA
Founded in 1899 to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics, the American Physical Society is now the nation’s leading organization of physicists with approximately 50,000 members in academia, national laboratories, and industry. APS has long played an active role in the federal government; its members serve in Congress and have held positions such as Science Advisor to the President of the United States, Director of the CIA, Director of the National Science Foundation and Secretary of Energy.
This report was overseen by the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA). POPA routinely produces reports on timely topics being debated in government so as to inform the debate with the perspectives of physicists working in the relevant issue areas.
The Materials Research Society (MRS) is an international organization of nearly 16,000 materials researchers from academia, industry, and government, and a recognized leader in promoting the advancement of interdisciplinary materials research to improve the quality of life. MRS members are engaged and enthusiastic professionals hailing from physics, chemistry, biology, materials science, mathematics and engineering – the full spectrum of materials research.
Robert Jaffe, Chair
Jonathan Price, Co-Chair