The U.S. Department of Energy is fighting back against China’s stranglehold on global rare earth mineral supplies–or at least throwing money at the problem–by awarding $120 million to Ames Laboratory to set up a new Energy Innovation Hub aimed at shoring up American energy security. Officially titled the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), the DOE lab will roll the resources of more than a dozen national labs, universities, and industry partners into one place in an effort to make rare earths less rare.
Rare earths are a collection of 17 elements that are valued for their unique properties. They are used in the production of everything from computer hard drives and smartphones to wind turbines, batteries, and precision weapons systems. They are found in computer displays and light bulbs and communications infrastructure. We use them to refine oil and build cars. In other words, we need refined rare earth minerals and China owns 95% of the global market for them–and isn’t always willing to share. Ramping up domestic supplies could take more than a decade. The CMI has the un-enviable job now of figuring out a solution to this problem.
How? CMI is taking a three-pronged approach. First, it will try to diversify the supply by bring new sources online. Second, CMI will support research into developing substitutes for rare earths, something that to date has shown marginal promise (particularly in Japan, the world’s largest importer of rare earths and on-again-off-again geopolitical thorn in China’s side). And finally, improve and encourage reusing and recycling of existing rare earths that are often thrown out with the consumer products they are packed inside.
Hopefully between these three efforts something will click. China has already rattled the rare earths saber on a couple of occasions, reminding its global customers that it alone can shut off the spigot to large segments of their manufacturing economies. It has yet to decisively shut off rare earth exports completely, but that could theoretically change at any time.