Science Committee Hearing on Energy Critical Elements

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Publication date: 
1 February 2012

To succeed in the global market place we need to  develop not only our mines, but also our minds.”  This observation by David Sandalow, who is  the Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International  Affairs, aptly summarizes the major conclusion from a hearing on energy  critical materials.  The hearing was held  to examine issues regarding the future availability of energy critical  materials, including a report by the American Physical Society’s Panel on  Public Affairs and the Materials Research Society entitled “Energy Critical  Elements: Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies.” APS is a Member Society of the American  Institute of Physics; MRS is an AIP Affiliated Society. 

The December 7 hearing by the Subcommittee on Energy  and the Environment of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee is one  of the latest developments in crafting a strategy to reduce U.S. dependence on  Energy Critical Elements (ECE).  The  APS/MRS report defines ECEs as “a class of chemical elements that currently  appear critical to one or more new, energy-related technologies,” such as  gallium, germanium, indium, selenium, lithium, and rhenium.   

The 23-page APS/MRS report was released in February  2011.  Robert Jaffe of the Massachusetts  Institute of Technology chaired the 14-member committee, which included  academic, national laboratory, and corporate representatives, as well as  individuals from the American Physical Society and the Material Research  Society. 

A key conclusion of the APS/MRS panel was “The  present ‘rare earth crisis’ – involving dramatic price escalations and possible  shortages - appears to be an example of government policy.” More than 95  percent of all rare earth elements, a subset of ECEs, are extracted and  processed in China.  To increase the  supply of ECEs, the report makes the following recommendations:


“The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)  should create a subcommittee within the National Science and Technology Council  (NSTC) to 1) examine the production and use of energy-critical elements within  the United States and, 2) coordinate the federal response.”


“The U.S. government should gather, analyze, and  disseminate information on energy-critical elements across the life-cycle supply  chain, including discovered and potential resources, production, use, trade,  disposal, and recycling. The entity undertaking this task should be a ‘Principal  Statistical Agency’ with survey enforcement authority. It should regularly  survey emerging energy technologies and the supply chain for elements  throughout the periodic table with the aim of identifying critical  applications, as well as potential shortfalls.”

Research and Development

“The federal government should establish a research  and development effort focused on energy-critical elements and possible  substitutes that can enhance vital aspects of the supply chain, including  geological deposit modeling, mineral extraction and processing, material  characterization and substitution, utilization, manufacturing, recycling, and  life-cycle analysis. Such an effort would address critical, but manageable,  workforce needs.”

Materials Efficiency

“The federal government should establish a  consumer-oriented ‘Critical Materials’ designation for ECE-related products. At  the same time, steps should be taken to improve rates of post-consumer  collection of industrial and consumer products containing ECEs, beginning with  an examination of the numerous methods explored and implemented in various  states and countries.”

Market Interventions

“The Committee does not recommend that the federal  government establish non-defense-related economic stockpiles of ECEs with the  exception of one element: helium. Measures should be adopted that both conserve  and enhance the nation’s helium reserves.”

Indicative of mounting congressional concern about  current and future supplies of ECEs are the ten bills that were introduced in  the House and Senate last year dealing with this problem.  The recent hearing by the Subcommittee on  Energy and Environment reviewed ECEs and H.R. 2090, the Energy Critical  Elements Advancement Act of 2011. 

H.R. 2090 was introduced last June by Rep. Randy  Hultgren (R-IL) and has four cosponsors.   The bill would implement the recommendations in the APS/MRS report.  The Departments of Interior and Energy would  be directed to collaborate “to improve assessments of energy critical elements.”  New duties are established for the U.S. Geological Survey.  Both departments are authorized to “establish  a research program to advance basic knowledge and enable expanded availability  of energy critical elements.”  A  subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council   would be required to issue a report on the recycling of energy critical  elements.

The subcommittee’s chairman, Andy Harris (R-MD) supports  the bill, telling his colleagues that it “sets forth the appropriate structure  and direction” for “reasonable and proper steps the federal government can and  should pursue in this area.”  In his  opening comments, Ranking Member Brad Miller (D-NC) described a rare earth bill  passed by an overwhelming vote in the House that was not acted upon by the  Senate.  He described a bill he  introduced in March, H.R. 952, as “very similar” to the previous bill passed by  the House.   Miller’s bill would  authorize the Office of Science and Technology Policy to direct research  efforts.  This bill has five cosponsors.  Harris told Miller that the committee would  work together to write a bipartisan bill.

In his testimony, David Sandalow stressed the  importance of research on ECEs and the need for close coordination between  federal agencies.  He said the  Administration is now reviewing H.R 2090, and “has no specific comments on it  at this time.”  Derek Scissors, a  Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation stressed his trust in market forces to  remedy shortages and disparaged loan guarantees and subsidies, adding that federal  support for applied research is a type of subsidy.  He predicted Chinese control of ECEs would be  temporary, saying that its market share is already declining. An example of how  the market is responding was provided by Luka Erceg, President and CEO of  Simbol Materials.  His company is  commercializing a process to extract lithium, manganese, and zinc from  geothermal brines at a California power plant.

“The sky is not falling,” Robert Jaffe assured the  subcommittee, while acknowledging that there are serious problems regarding  ECEs.  He stressed the importance of  gathering information to predict when a shortage may occur, the need for fundamental  research, and the desirability of ECE recycling.  Jaffe said H.R. 2090 reflects the  recommendations of the APS/MRS report.  Also  testifying was Karl Gschneidner of Ames National Laboratory who was a member of  the APS/MRS committee.  He stressed the  importance of ECEs in military applications, described research at Ames  Laboratory, and discussed his concerns about the future workforce.

Questions from subcommittee members focused on the  proper role of the federal government, with concern about it “picking winners  and losers.”  Sandalow urged the  subcommittee to avoid artificial distinctions in types of research, citing the  important role that basic research played in developing shale gas.  Erceg spoke of the important role that a  federal grant to his company made in sending an “enormous signal” to the  market.

There was also discussion about a forthcoming report  by the Department of Energy that has since been released, the second in a  series that is entitled “Critical Materials Strategy.”  A four-page summary  explains:

“Several clean energy technologies - including wind turbines,  electric vehicles, photovoltaic thin films and fluorescent lighting - use  materials at risk of supply disruptions in the short term . . . .  Those risks will generally decrease in the  medium and long term.

“Supply challenges for five rare earth metals  (dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium) may affect clean energy  technology deployment in the years ahead.

“In the past year, DOE and other stakeholders have scaled  up work to address these challenges. This includes new funding for priority  research, development of DOE’s first critical materials research plan,  international workshops bringing together leading experts and substantial new  coordination among federal agencies working on these topics.

“Building workforce capabilities through education  and training will help address vulnerabilities and realize opportunities  related to critical materials.

“Much more work is required in the years ahead.”

This summary briefly describes DOE’s Strategy, which  parallels the APS/MRS study’s recommendations:

“DOE’s strategy to address critical materials  challenges rests on three pillars. First, diversified global supply chains are  essential. To manage supply risk, multiple sources of materials are required.  This means taking steps to facilitate extraction, processing and manufacturing  here in the United States, as well as encouraging other nations to expedite  alternative supplies. In all cases, extraction, separation and processing  should be done in an environmentally sound manner. Second, substitutes must be  developed. Research leading to material and technology substitutes will improve  flexibility and help meet the material needs of the clean energy economy.  Third, recycling, reuse and more efficient use could significantly lower world  demand for newly extracted materials. Research into recycling processes coupled  with well-designed policies will help make recycling economically viable over  time.”

The report outlines steps that DOE has taken to  implement this strategy.  Congress is  also acting: the recently-passed FY 2012 appropriations bill for DOE includes  $20 million for a new energy innovation hub that will focus on critical  materials.