The U.S. Energy Department will invest up to $120 million during the next five years to establish a new Energy Innovation Hub that will focus on developing an effective supply chain for rare earth materials.
Rare earth elements and other materials have unique chemical and physical characteristics, including magnetic, catalytic and luminescent properties, that are important for a growing number of energy technologies. “These critical materials are also at risk for supply disruptions,” the Energy Department warned.
China, the world’s top supplier of rare earth materials, has threatened to implement export controls.
The Energy Department hub, funded by up to $20 million in fiscal year 2012, will work to advance U.S. energy manufacturing – such as electric vehicles, wind turbines, efficient lighting and others – through research aimed both at having a reliable supply of these rare earths and other critical materials, as well as finding efficiencies and alternatives that reduce the amount U.S. industry actually needs.
“We must ensure America’s entrepreneurs and manufacturers continue to have access to these critical materials so we can compete in the global energy economy,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu, in a statement.
Established in 2010, the department’s hubs are major integrated research centers, with researchers from many different institutions and technical backgrounds. They are modeled after the scientific management characteristics of the Manhattan Project, Lincoln Lab at MIT that developed radar, AT&T Bell Laboratories that developed the transistor and, more recently, the Bioenergy Research Centers established during the Bush administration to pioneer advanced techniques in biotechnology, including biofuels.
The goal of the Critical Materials Hub will be to reduce U.S. dependence on critical materials and ensure the deployment of domestic energy technologies is not hindered by future materials supply shortages. The hub will address challenges across the entire life of each critical material including mineral processing, manufacture, substitution, efficient use, and end-of-life recycling.
Universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations, and private firms are eligible to compete and are encouraged to form partnerships when submitting their proposals. The Energy Department will make its award selection this fall.