Jared Kosters
Critical Research for Critical Materials
Jared KostersJuly 18, 2013

Critical materials, such as platinum, indium, tellurium, and certain rare earth metals, are vital to the large-scale deployment of next-generation energy generation and storage technologies. Increasing global demand for cleaner, more efficient energy technologies is threatening the supply and driving up the cost of these materials. Further, supplies of some critical materials can be vulnerable to political pressures; for example, China produces more than 97% of the world’s rare earth metals. As a result, many manufacturers are left wondering what they will do if they can’t acquire these elements in a reliable way in the future.

In response, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) launched a new $120 million Energy Innovation Hub called the Critical Materials Institute (CMI). The CMI brings together the collaborative efforts of four national labs, seven research universities, and seven industrial partners to develop solutions for mitigating potential supply shortages of critical materials. In doing so, the CMI shares a common goal with the Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative (CEMI) that I discussed in a previous post, due to its focus on helping our nation’s manufacturers develop innovative clean energy technologies.

The CMI’s partners will work together to conduct the following activities:

  1. Optimize the use of critical materials. The CMI will focus on improving manufacturing techniques so that they use smaller amounts of existing critical materials. They will also work to develop novel methods to maximize the recycle and recovery of critical materials at the end of a product’s effective lifespan. Finding ways to use smaller amounts of these materials is key to long-term sustainability.
  2. Develop alternatives to critical materials. Researchers will work to develop substitute materials that are the next-best options for delivering high-performance energy generation and storage solutions. The Materials Genome Initiative is supporting these same activities that use predictive computational tools to accelerate the development of critical material alternatives.
  3. Forecast potential shortages of new critical materials. As new materials are used in place of existing critical materials, they also run the risk of supply issues in the future. To combat this potential issue, the CMI will strategically forecast which materials are currently or potentially significant components of innovative clean energy technologies and may become critical in the future.

Our nation’s energy future cannot be constrained by the limited availability or access to critical materials. Optimizing the use of critical materials without causing a major threat to the supply will foster the breakthrough of critical clean energy technologies. Thanks to the efforts of the CMI and other ongoing initiatives, our future is looking bright.