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"Energy Critical Elements"
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
MIT, Building 6-120, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge

Speaker: Robert Jaffe - Morningstar Professor of Science, Department of Physics
I will then turn to our recent report on "Energy Critical Elements: Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies", describing rare elements' roles in emerging technologies, constraints on availability, and government actions to avoid disruptive shortages.

Web site:
Open to: the general public
Sponsor(s): Physics IAP
For more information, contact:  Denise Wahkor

American Physical Society (APS) and Materials Research Society Energy (MRS) Critical Elements report:

Since the Chinese have recently monopolized rare earths production, energy critical elements have become a serious economic and policy concern.  The US has responded by engaging in rare earths mining and now produces 20% of some of them.  Australia is also beginning rare earths mining.  If the usual model of capitalistic boom and bust, which we've experienced with the silicon market over the last decade, is any indication, there will be an over-investment in rare earths elements (REE) and then a subsequent bust as the market settles.  However, the fact remains that the US is 90% dependent on imports for critical energy materials.

Some of these energy critical elements include:

Gallium, germanium, indium, selenium, silver, and tellurium, all employed in advanced photovoltaic solar cells, especially thin-film photovoltaics.
Dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium, samarium (all REEs), and cobalt, used in high-strength permanent magnets for many energy-related applications, such as wind turbines and hybrid automobiles.
Most REEs, valued for their unusual magnetic and/or optical properties. Examples include gadolinium for its unusual paramagnetic qualities and europium and terbium for their role in managing the color of fluorescent lighting. Yttrium, another REE, is an important ingredient in energy-efficient solid-state lighting.
Lithium and lanthanum, used in high performance batteries.
Helium, required in cryogenics, energy research, advanced nuclear reactor designs,
and manufacturing in the energy sector.
Platinum, palladium, and other PGEs, used as catalysts in fuel cells that may find wide applications in transportation. Cerium, a REE, is also used as an auto-emissions catalyst.
Rhenium, used in high performance alloys for advanced turbines.
Tellurium is one fourth as abundant as gold.  It takes 80 tons of Te to get a gW of peak power in thin film pv solar according to Jaffe.  (However, thin film pv is not the most efficient pv currently available and I doubt that anyone would consider deploying large-scale thin film pv installations.)  The estimated world production of tellurium is 500 tons per year.

Neodymium and praseodymium are used in wind turbines and are about one tenth of world rare earth production.

Terbium production is about 450 tons per year.

Rhenium is perhaps the rarest material with an annual world production between 40 and 50 tons per year.

In the next few years the US will sell off its helium stockpile. Helium is a by-product of natural gas, at 4 parts per billion, but only some natural gas deposits include it and those have not been adequately mapped.

10% of world's silver production now goes into silicon pv contacts.

Almost all of these materials are by-products of other materials and their prices are artificial because of that:
Rhenium with molybdenum
Tellurium with copper (also zinc and lead)
Indium and germanium with zinc
Gallium with aluminum

Thorium is frequently present in rare earth deposits as well but usually disposed of because it is not economic to capture it. As are many other useful materials.  Witness the flaring of gas from the fracking operations in North Dakota.

In addition, as by-materials, they depend upon the main ores and the processes used to produce them.  For instance, copper can be processed in such a way that tellurium is lost.

The report recommends some changes in policy:  
a "coordinated response" which is beginning as the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has established a task force on critical and strategic mineral supply chains led by Cyrus Wadia;  the US DOE has selected the Ames Laboratory to house the Critical Materials Institute;  and, although the Bingaman-Murkowski amendment of the energy critical materials bill died in the last Congress, it will be re-introduced in the next Congress with the sponsorship of Ron Wyden and Barbara Murkowski since Jeff Bingaman has retired from the Senate;

"comprehensive, reliable, and up-to-date information on all aspects of the life cycle of ECEs as present information on many of these materials is very uneven";

"research and development to both expand availability and reduce dependency" on such materials and to train scientists and technologists in the field especially since it takes 5-10 years for research and develop substitutes and another 5-15 years to bring new sources online;

and "recycling" as many of these materials are not yet recycled or even tracked through the materials flows of our industrial and commercial systems.

Thomas Graedl of Yale is one scientist working on recycling and materials flows:

"The historical reservoir for the materials used by our technological society has been virgin stocks (ore bodies, mineral deposits, and the like). For a variety of reasons, those stocks may become inadequate or unavailable at some times or places in the future, and the loss of resources by dissipation or discard is often problematic from an environmental standpoint. These issues can be addressed by developing cycles for the stocks and flows of materials of interest, particularly if the cycles are temporally and spatially resolved.

"I, along with my colleagues, have characterized regional and global cycles, current and historic, for copper and zinc, determining the stocks available in different types of reservoirs and the flows among the reservoirs. GIS techniques are used to display some of the results in spatially-gridded form. The work provides a new basis for assessments of resources sustainability, environmental impacts over time, and related policy initiatives."

Europe is actually doing some recycling now.  EU Rare Earths Recycling study:

One company is Solvay

Of course, there is an industrial association and lobbying group, RARE, the Association for Rare Earth (

RARE is the premier international advocate and opinion leader for rare earth industry suppliers, manufacturers, and retailers dedicated to improving the future through rare earth innovation.
One interesting parallel track Robert Jaffe didn't mention is the Center for Inverse Design
( which is doing a systematic examination of the periodic table for new and more efficient properties, in some cases using genetic algorithms. Carla Gomes of Cornell is also doing some interesting work on the computational analysis of new materials.  After hearing talks on the Center and then, a few weeks later, Dr Gomes, I alerted her to the Center's work.  I have emailed Dr Jaffe about both and hope that something useful can come from making such connections.

In addition, there's the currently outlandish possibility of nuclear transmutation of elements.  Here is a presentation by Yasuhiro Iwamura of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries on transmutation reactions delivered at the American Nuclear Society on November 12, 2012:

It is always good to remember

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy
But I wouldn't hold my breath in anticipation of such (scientific) miracles.

More energy critical elements?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (17+ / 0-)

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

    by gmoke on Sun Jan 20, 2013 at 05:01:51 PM PST

  •  Initial thoughts (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gmoke, Old Lefty, radical simplicity

    after skimming the long EU Rare Earths Recycling study:

    1.  China can do well economically in the short run if it limits supplies.

    2.  In the long run, increasing prices will continue to drive attempts at mining rare earths elsewhere, recycling, research into substitutes and research into new types of electrical devices that require little or no rare earths.  This will drive a drop in prices for rare earths.

    3.  It is in the best interests of China to work with the rest of the world to maintain supplies at sustainable levels.

    "Trust only those who doubt" Lu Xun

    by LookingUp on Sun Jan 20, 2013 at 05:51:23 PM PST

    •  It's in the best interests of the world (4+ / 0-)

      To accept the fact China cannot supply the world with REE indefinitely and that it's not acceptable to pollute China and for large MNCs to promote the illegal mining and refining of REEs in China and Vietnam just to put $$$ on their bottom lines.

      I notice the US Congress passed regulations to address the problem of conflict metals and prohibit their use by American companies, which is good. So I wonder if the US Congress can pass a law prohibiting the use of illegally mined REE which have great environmental impact. Similar regulations to validate the procurement from properly regulated sources could be applied.

      I also noticed that prior to China announcing it's intentions to regulate extraction and refining to get the industry under control, close to zero REE were recycled in the world because of the availability of cheap REEs made it more profitable to just buy more and turn a blind eye to the impacts, and not bother recycling.

      Consequently, facing shortages and higher prices, the consuming industries have finally gotten motivated to work on recycling and reduction of use.

      Could it be these "Rare Earths" were undervalued?

      Lastly, consider that REEs are a finite resource and therefore it's important for China and other producers to regulate and conserve use or one day the tap runs dry (after the mountains are destroyed and water polluted).

      What about my Daughter's future?

      by koNko on Sun Jan 20, 2013 at 07:54:58 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I do hope there is more focus on recycling (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gmoke, Old Lefty, radical simplicity

    And on the environmental cost on mining and refining REE, which, as it stands now,  includes the destruction of mountains and the pollution of water with heavy metals and radioactive substances, which why China took action to get the industry under control and close wildcat mining operations.

    People also need to understand REE are a finite resource and not a "renewable" even if the application of them is sometimes renewable power sources.

    Given the above, one wonders why such a small fraction is recycled.

    Thank you China for raising these issues.

    What about my Daughter's future?

    by koNko on Sun Jan 20, 2013 at 07:43:13 PM PST

  •  More than Rare Earths (4+ / 0-)

    Energy critical elements are much more than rare earths.  The Chinese action has made people take notice but there are many other elements and materials that pose a host of similar problems - short supply, environmental degradation upon extraction, little or no recycling.

    We shouldn't lose sight of that wider picture.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

    by gmoke on Sun Jan 20, 2013 at 08:05:08 PM PST

  •  Two things matter (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gmoke, Old Lefty

    1) What you point to -- limitations of real resources, in view of technological capabilities and societal requirements


    2) Money, labor, and time. (OK, that's three more)

    The neoliberal economics which has framed public discussion of these issues -- including what money is and government's role with respect to it -- impose unnecessary constraints on our potential, all for the benefit of a select few. (In this context, you know who those are.)

    You might want to look at these (and other related) links (apologies for not having culled them further) which lay out some approaches within the context of a proper understanding of the modern monetary reality (i.e., a government, like ours, that is "monetarily sovereign") as given by the descriptive economic theory known as "Modern Monetarily Reality":

    • which offers these tidbits:

    Aside from the obvious constraint of real resources, the autonomous government’s true constraint is never solvency, but inflation. …

    It is the desire to generate improving living standards through the efficient use of resources resulting in the optimization of time. …

    We generate improving living standards through the efficient use of resources resulting in the optimization of time”

    • Bill Mitchell's series on Modern Monetary Theory and environmental sustainability at

    There are various other resources at, including

    • a fun, quick, explanatory video, see the recently published

    • the MMT primer

    Also, see the oft-cited: Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy

    The key will be to model the dynamics of (1) in consideration of  a proper understanding of (2).

    Modeling under the mistaken assumptions of neoliberal economics will yield a poor understanding.

    United We Understand

    by dorkenergy on Sun Jan 20, 2013 at 08:53:27 PM PST

  •  The answer is in the stars (0+ / 0-)

    or, more precisely, the asteroids. I believe we sill see economically relevant quantities of REs returning from these sources by 2023.

    Just getting a handle on the knobs and dials.... Hey, don't touch that!

    by Old Lefty on Sun Jan 20, 2013 at 10:46:14 PM PST

  •  Rare earth mining is associated with (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    massive pollution - which no one into "green energy" much wants to talk about.

    That helium shortage is really a huge godsend, however . .. . .  kinda puts a damper on kids birthday parties, for sure (ha ha ha!!).

    •  Massive Pollution (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Roadbed Guy

      Look hard enough and everything we do now and all the infrastructure we've built is associated with massive pollution.  We have to start thinking in terms of zero emissions and zero wastes, including mining.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

      by gmoke on Mon Jan 21, 2013 at 07:51:27 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Some things are more polluting than others . . . (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        even mining for rare earth elements can be done "properly" (as it now seems to be at Mountain Pass in California as compared to decades ago when they strew radioactive waste everywheres - like is being done in China and Indonesia now).

        •  Question of Degree (0+ / 0-)

          "We have to start thinking in terms of zero emissions and zero wastes, including mining."  

          Then there's the first principle of The Natural Step

          eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of substances extracted from the Earth's crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels)
          According to the International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook of 2012
          No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2ºC goal...
          Looks like we're gonna havta keep a lotta coal in the ground.

          Maybe we'll have to keep a lot of other materials there too.

          Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

          by gmoke on Tue Jan 22, 2013 at 07:53:41 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

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