The next generation of wind turbine and electric car parts could be rare earth-free, if the United States succeeds in its push to produce clean technologies without the crucial metallic elements.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said it would offer up to $30 million in funding for research on alternatives to rare earth-containing materials used in turbine generators and EV motors.
An additional $100 million will be split among other Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) programs for advanced biofuels, thermal energy storage, power grid reliability and lower-cost solar electricity.
Since 2009 the high-risk research fund has doled out $363 million in federal stimulus dollars for 121 energy projects and is now in its fourth round of funding. President Obama says he wants to add $550 million to ARPA-E next year.
"ARPA-E is unleashing American innovation to strengthen America's global competitiveness and win the clean energy race," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said via press release. But access to shrinking and restricted supplies of rare earths could hinder the ability of U.S. manufacturers to compete worldwide, the agency says.
China produces 97 percent of the world's supply of rare earth metals, though the United States, Russia and Australia have mostly untapped reserves.
According to the DOE: "As demand for these [clean] technologies continues to increase, rare earths are rapidly becoming more expensive due to limited global supply — prices of many have increased 300 to 700 percent in the past year.
"Rising rare earth prices have already escalated costs for some energy technologies and may jeopardize the widespread adoption of many critical energy solutions by U.S. manufacturers."
Wind turbines and electric motors in recent years have relied increasingly on the use of metals such as neodymium and dysprosium to make the powerful permanent magnets used in high-performance drive systems.
'Makes Sense to Worry'
The United States consumes about 10,000 metric tons of rare earths annually, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
George Hadjipanayis, a physicist at the University of Delaware, said that the neodymium-iron-boron (Nd-Fe-B) magnet he helped discover in the early 1980s requires hundreds of kilograms of rare earth materials when used in offshore wind turbines, and smaller yet substantial amounts in electric motors.
"Because these materials were available then, most of the research in the past few years was on rare earth magnets, and not enough time was devoted on materials which did not have rare earths," he told SolveClimate News.
"As there is more and more demand [for clean technologies] it therefore makes sense to worry about the future of rare earths."
In response to rising global demand last year, China cut its rare earth export quotas by 72 percent in the second half 2010, raising major qualms among cleantech manufacturers. The nation then cut exports again by 35 percent for the first half of this year.
The United States could offset supply restraints by ramping up mining of the 13 million metric tons of rare earth minerals that are spread across 14 states.
Colorado-based Molycorp Inc. has said it will reopen its rare earth mine in Mountain Pass, Calif., which closed in 2002, with a $500 million renovation to reduce the environmental impacts of its mining — namely water pollution and radioactive sludge.
Earlier this month, the firm acquired the Arizona-based rare earth alloy and metal producer Santoku America Inc., a subsidiary of a Japan's Santoku Corp., for $17.5 million.
But the DOE still expects the rising adoption of clean technologies to deplete rare earths "faster than new supplies and proven reserves can be economically brought into production."
Next-Gen Permanent Magnets
Neodymium — the basis of 90 percent of permanent magnets used in EV and turbine technologies — will surpass supply in the next ten years, and dysprosium would face a major shortage by 2015 if demand doubles in that time.
For motors in hybrid and electric cars, the ARPA-E program aims to eliminate the use of dysprosium, increase power and decrease costs. Direct-drive wind turbine generators could use high-temperature superconductors or non-rare earth permanent magnets.
Hadjipanayis is already at work to develop next-generation permanent magnets with 30 to 40 percent fewer rare earth materials.
For the past year, the physicist has led a multi-institutional team of researchers for the three-year-long project using $4.4 million in earlier ARPA-E funds for magnet innovation. GE Global Research received $2.25 million in support last year for similar research.
"We're trying to make the strongest magnet in the world, which right now is the Nd-Fe-B magnet," he said.
On the REACT program, he added: "I hope we can find a material that will one day replace rare earths."
Efforts to move beyond the metallic minerals could bode well for companies whose existing technologies avoid them altogether.
San Dimas, Calif.-based AC Propulsion has made induction motors for electric vehicles for two decades without any rare earth minerals.
CEO Tom Gage said that permanent magnet motors gained popularity in the EV market because of high peak efficiency levels, while induction motors have higher efficiency at a broader range.
The firm develops products for automotive manufacturers such as Germany's BMW and Taiwan's Yulon, plus three Chinese and two Japanese carmakers and one in Korea.
"The most immediate thing for any automotive planner is they have to have a reliable supply of parts. The car companies don't take this lightly, whether the [rare earth] shortage is real or temporary or an artifact of some gamesmanship in China," Gage told SolveClimate News.
He said that AC Propulsion had not significantly grown as the result of non-rare earth initiatives, though, "We have gotten some calls from car companies interested in discussion that we wouldn't have expected otherwise."
Offshore Wind Sans Rare Earths?
Jason Fredette, a spokesperson for Devens, Mass.-based American Superconductor (AMSC), said that the company's Windtec arm is developing a 10-megawatt offshore wind turbine that would use only trace amounts of rare earth metals such as yttrium in a superconducting generator.
"The permanent magnet generator is a technology that is increasing in popularity and has gotten a lot of traction in the wind market, but most wind turbines today still do not require rare earths," he said.
AMSC's offshore SeaTitan turbine is part of a research cooperative with the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Together their aim is to reduce the costs of building subterranean infrastructure by making one massive tower capable of replacing ten smaller turbines.
While most of the firm's business is with manufacturers in China, Korea, Taiwan and India, Fredette said that AMSC plans to participate in the fledgling U.S. offshore wind market as it opens up.
"The Department of Energy has been a good supporter of superconductors through the years and has helped us bring the technology to the stage that it is today," he said, adding that it was too soon to say if the firm would seek out ARPA-E funding.