A handful of rare earth minerals and other elements help power our high-tech world and are critical to the development of new technologies to foster US energy independence.
These so-called "Energy-Critical Elements" (ECEs) are chemicals that have the capacity to transform the way we capture, transmit, store or conserve energy.
Unfortunately, though, the US relies on other countries for more than 90 percent of most ECEs. Some ECEs are simply rare in the Earth's crust or poorly concentrated by geological processes. Many have been produced as by-products of primary metals refining, complicating attempts to produce large quantities. Others occur only in a few mines worldwide, where production is dominated by and subject to --manipulation by one or more countries.
China, for example, produces 95 percent of all rare earth elements and recently announced plans to cut its exports of the minerals to various nations by 35 percent.
What can the US do to secure future supplies of ECEs?
A new report, released last Friday by the American Physical Society (APS) and Materials Research Society (MRS), offers some valuable guidance.
According to Energy Critical Elements: Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies, stockpiling and mining are not the answer. Instead, the report calls for stabilizing ECE supplies using a multi-faceted approach that includes research for possible substitutes that can enhance vital aspects of the supply chain, enhanced recycling and gathering, and disseminating accurate information about ECE availability.
As the report points out, General Electric used these approaches to successfully redesign its high performance turbines while anticipating a shortage of rhenium, an ECE.
US Sen. Mark Udall, of Colorado, has introduced a bill, the "Critical Minerals and Materials Promotion Act of 2011," which makes similar recommendations to those found in the report.
A one-page summary that explains how ECEs are integrated into today's technologies is available here.