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Rare Earths R&D funding critical to stemming brain drain in U.S. materials manufacturing

Rare Earths

Without the development of new rare earth mineral supplies and more focused research in materials and manufacturing, Steven J. Duclos, the chief scientist and manager of material sustainability for GE Global Research, warns "supply challenges could seriously undermine efforts to meet the nation's future needs in energy, healthcare and transportation."

During testimony before the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the House Committee on Science and Technology this week, Duclos estimates that GE uses "at least 70 of the first 83 elements listed in the Periodic Table of Elements" in the manufacturing of GE products.

"In actual dollars, we spent $40 billion annually on materials," Duclos said. Ten percent of this is for the direct purchase of metals and alloys. In the specific case of the rare earth elements, we use these elements in our healthcare, lightning, energy, motors, and transportation products."

Duclos said GE scientists are working with Yale University researchers who are developing "a more rigorous methodology for assessing the criticality of metals. Through these collaborations, we anticipate being able to predict with much greater confidence the level of criticality of elements for GE uses."

Scientist Karl A. Gshneider, Jr., of the Ames Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Iowa State University, called for a National Research Center on Rare Earths and Energy to be established in this country, and a National Research Center for Magnetic Cooling.

Magnetic cooling is new, advanced green technology for cooling and climate control of buildings and refrigerating and freezing foods.

Gshneider told the House Subcommittee that China has two large research laboratories devoted to rare earth research including mineral extraction, rare earth separation, and processing of oxides into metallic alloys. The Bautou Research Institute of Rare Earths is the largest rare earth research group in the world. It is located about 120 miles from the large rare earth deposit in Inner Mongolia.

He explained that as China flooded the marketplace with low-priced rare earth products in the 1990, producers in the U.S. and the rest of the world shut down. Soon thereafter China began manufacturing higher value rare earth products, include rare earth permanent magnet materials, which forced all U.S. rare earth magnet manufacturers out of business. "This resulted in a brain drains and scientists and engineers in this field, and also in all high tech areas involving other rare earth products..."

"Some of these experts have moved on to other industries, others have retired, and other have died, basically leaving behind an intellectual vacuum" in the U.S. in terms of REE R&D, Gshneider noted.

"Rare earth research in the USA on mineral extraction, rare earth separation, processing of metal alloys and other useful forms...substitution, and recycling is virtually zero," he stressed.

Mark Smith, CEO of Molycorp Minerals,  urged the House Subcommittee to help rebuild the rare earth knowledge infrastructure, as well as provide federal funding support for competitive grants specifically directed at rare earth research.

He noted that the Departments of Defense, Commerce and State are each examining this issue within the unique context of their agencies' work.

"The global rare earth supply concerns facing the U.S. and all other countries outside China are obviously disconcerting, but they are not insurmountable," Smith declared. "A combination of geologic good fortune and an accelerated effort to ramp up domestic production and rebuild lost manufacturing capabilities could provide a solution for the U.S. and ensure that our leading national objectives are not jeopardized."

Smith suggested Molycorp's "mining to magnets strategy," if executed effectively, could prove to be catalytic for our development of a clean energy economy and the resurgence of domestic manufacturing. ...we stand ready to work with Congress and the Administration to find ways to accelerate our work at Mountain Pass and bring these needed capabilities online as soon as possible."

Molycorp Minerals, a California operation based just over the California/Nevada state line from Las Vegas, has been in the rare earths business for nearly six decades. The company is now trying to restart active mining of 40 million pounds of rare earth oxides annually. The company plans to establish the production of rare earth permanent magnets.

GE's Dulcos said he believes "a more coordinated approach and sustained level of investment from the federal government in materials science and manufacturing technologies is required to accelerate the new materials breakthroughs that provide business with more flexibility and make us less vulnerable to material shortages."

Disclosure: The author holds no positions in the company