of promising technologies. Examples include alternatives to motors and generators that do not include rare earths, and magnet formulations that have higher performance with less rare earth content using nanotechnology approaches. DOE also has been sponsoring critical materials workshops and international meetings to help build a global as well as a national research community.
At the time of the workshop, DOE was working on an integrated research plan to be released by the end of 2011. As part of these efforts, the department planned to strengthen its information-gathering capacity and analyze additional technologies, such as the fluid-cracking catalysts used in petroleum refining. DOE will continue to work closely with international partners, interagency colleagues, Congress, and public stakeholders to incorporate outside perspectives into its planning, Bauer noted. Also, a new interagency working group led by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been formed to address critical and strategic mineral supply chains, she said.
In response to a question about the role of prices in changing the availability of critical elements, Eggert agreed that price is important but also pointed to other factors. For example, supplies of the platinum-group elements may be more constrained than supplies of rare earth elements. For the past several decades, much of the rare earths used worldwide have come from two mines—the Mountain Pass Mine in California and the Bayan Obo Mine in China. The dramatically higher prices for rare earths over the past year may not have an immediate impact but over the longer term could lead to more geographically diversified mines.
Dennis Chamot of NRC pointed to the potential for relatively inexpensive materials to replace more expensive ones. For example, composites are replacing more and more steel in automobiles. Similarly, biological systems generally cannot afford to use scarce elements in processes such as photosynthesis, so organic chemistry may suggest ways to replace exotic elements.
In response to a question about supply constraints, Eggert said, “We’re really not in danger of running out of anything. Human demand relative to what’s available in the Earth’s crust is relatively small even for the rare elements, and that at least for our lifetimes and probably the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren there are significant opportunities to expand the availability of things like rare earths if we choose to devote effort to those activities.”
He also pointed out that the geographic allocation of a resource can be very important. For some critical elements, China plays an important role. At present, China is exercising its market power, which creates, in effect, a two-tiered pricing system, where prices in China to Chinese users of these elements are lower than to users in the rest of the world. However, this is less an issue of geology and more a result of existing production capacity, according to Eggert.
Thiel asked Eggert which elements are most worrisome to him in terms of price and availability. “The simple answer is gallium, indium, and tellurium for photovoltaics,” Eggert replied. “That may be biased because my institution is right across the street from the National Renewable Energy Lab, and we’ve had lots of discussions on these issues. But those elements are relatively rare in a chemical sense in the Earth’s crust, they don’t tend to be concentrated significantly above average crustal abundance in very many locations, and they are currently all produced as byproducts.”
In response to a question about recycling, Bauer noted that the potential varies by technology. For example, wind turbines from 30 years ago will not contain any neodymium, so they cannot serve as a source of that material. But fluorescent lights offer more potential because they have a shorter lifespan, a collection infrastructure is in place, and they contain heavy rare earth elements that will not be produced in much greater amounts from the mines slated to come on line. “That is a good niche type of recycling application to do first,” she said.
Bauer also was asked whether actual shortages of critical elements can currently be documented, and she responded that price pass-throughs have been documented in some industries. “Part of the challenge is that a lot of companies don’t want to share publicly their lack of ability to get material because that makes them vulnerable within the market to price increases or other disruptions,” she said.
Finally, Bauer was asked whether DOE has seen evidence of black markets in critical elements, and she noted that the rare earth situation is special. Because China has export quotas on rare earths, producers in China have incentives to develop black-market channels, “and there is definitely evidence that that has happened and is happening.”