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Posted at 5:19 PM ET, 02/18/2011

U.S. urged to swiftly secure supplies of 'energy-critical elements'

By Brian Vastag

They are rarer than gold, but they are critical for new-energy technologies such as electric cars, wind turbines and solar cells.

Researchers call them "energy-critical elements," and a new report urges the United States government to take swift steps to safeguard the supply of some 25 different elements from odd slices of the periodic table - and often odder corners of the Earth.

"A shortage of any of these elements could significantly impact the large-scale deployment of new energy technologies," said Thomas Graedel of Yale University, a co-author of the report released Friday by the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society. The report was unveiled at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

No shortages are imminent, said report co-author Robert Jaffe, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yet so little information is available regarding the supply and market for these materials that corporations and government agencies are unable to plan for securing a supply, he said.

"We are concerned at a fairly high level about a good chunk of the periodic table - about a third of it," Jaffe said.

Already, the issue has gained traction in the Senate and the White House.

On Thursday, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) introduced a bill directing the U.S. Geological Survey to broadly study the issue, including delineating the global supply chain of these elements, which are often produced as byproducts of mining of more abundant minerals, such as copper. The bill also calls on the Department of Energy to help secure a steady supply of the elements.

Jaffe said the bill is drawing support from both political parties.

The White House is acting as well, with its Office of Science and Technology Policy coordinating a cross-agency governmental response. A new subcommittee of the cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council will steer the effort.

Over the past few years, a spotlight has focused on supply concerns with so-called rare-earth elements - which include lanthanum, cerium and neodymium - as China now produces about 95 percent of these, Graedel said.

The new report adds a dozen other elements to the rare earths, collecting them under the term "energy-critical elements."

"These elements could be considered lab curiosities until about a decade ago," Graedel said. Since then, demand has exploded. Cellphones and iPods contain up to 65 different elements, many of them rare. Electric car batteries also rely on rare elements, as do blades for wind-powered and gas-powered turbines. The insides of energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs are coated with tiny amounts of two such elements, terbium and europium.

The report advises against strategic stockpiling by the federal government. In the past, Jaffe said, stockpiling has stifled the incentive to develop substitute materials.

Also, as the United States lacks most of these elements in any quantity, the country cannot "mine its way out of this problem," Jaffe said.

Instead, the report asks for comprehensive research into the entire supply chain of these elements; encourages research into substitute materials; and calls on the federal government to launch a recycling program.

"Energy critical elements are literally more precious than gold, but we treat them like trash," Jaffe said. Cellphones and iPods end up in landfills despite containing more of these elements, per weight, than the ore they're mined from.

Still, a recycling program won't be enough, the report warns, as much of the materials will be locked up in electric car batteries and wind turbine blades for decades.

By Brian Vastag  | February 18, 2011; 5:19 PM ET
 
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