U.S.-Japan roundtable on rare earth elements

Nov. 22, 2010

U.S.-Japan roundtable on rare earth elements

Representatives from the Department of Energy, national labs, industry, and Japanese institutes gathered at Lawrence Livermore on Thursday and Friday, Nov. 18-19, to discuss strategies with regard to rare earth elements. The Department of Energy's Office of Policy and International Affairs (DOE-PI) convened the roundtable discussion, which was hosted by LLNL, to gather information for the development of a Critical Materials Strategy, with an emphasis on rare earth elements that are used in clean energy technologies.

In welcoming the roundtable participants to the Laboratory, Al Ramponi, associate deputy director for Science and Technology, remarked that rare earth research brought him to the Lab and the laser program in the 1980s. Looking forward, he noted that "high tech and green tech are large and growing users of rare earth elements."

The rare earths comprise 17 elements in the periodic table -- scandium, yttrium and the 15 lanthanides (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium). Despite their name, the rare earths (with the exception of promethium) are not all that rare, but are actually found in relatively high concentrations across the globe. However, because of their geochemical properties, they seldom occur in easily exploitable deposits.

Rare earth elements are of strategic concern because they are used in many devices important to a high-tech economy and national security, including computer components, electronic polishing compounds, refining catalysts, superconductors, permanent magnets, hybrid/electric vehicle batteries and magnets, fiber optic communications systems, LCD screens, night vision goggles, tunable microwave resonators -- and, at the Laboratory, NIF's neodymium-glass laser amplifiers.

The two DOE PI representatives, Kay Thompson and Diana Bauer, described DOE's interest in rare earths. Thompson observed that rare earth elements are central to DOE's mission because they are essential to many of the clean energy technologies that are needed to achieve a low-carbon society.

She also noted that the roundtable is one of the first efforts supporting the new U.S.-Japan Clean Energy Policy Dialogue, announced earlier in November by President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Kan at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting. Led by DOE and Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the dialogue will focus on policies to promote the development and deployment of clean energy technologies, including electric vehicles, transformative energy, peaceful nuclear energy, and rare earth elements. (The initiative builds on the Clean Energy Action Plan agreed to by the U.S. and Japan in November 2009.)

Bauer described the goals of the DOE Critical Materials Strategy. "The global ramp-up in clean energy technologies is changing the supply-and-demand dynamic of rare earth elements. Therefore, we're looking at ways to diversify the global supply chain, at potential substitutes, and at efficient use, from mining and extraction through manufacturing to reuse and recycling." She noted that DOE is focusing on the use of rare earths in four energy-related technology areas in particular -- magnets, batteries, photovoltaic thin films, and lighting.

Demand for rare earth elements increased roughly 300 percent between 1980 and 2010, and there is concern that the world will soon face a shortage on the order of tens of thousands of metric tons of these materials. This concern is amplified by recent action taken by China to reduce its rare earth exports.

China currently produces about 97 percent of the world's supply of rare earths, although it has not always been the leader in rare earth production. Until 1948, most rare earths came from placer sand deposits in India and Brazil. In the 1950s, South Africa was the principal source of rare earths, extracted from large veins of monazite ore. In the 1960s through the 1980s, the Mountain Pass mine in California was the leading rare earth producer. Chinese rare earth production took off in the 1990s, when China undercut U.S. prices on rare earths as a way to obtain hard currency.

The two days of talks and discussions covered all stages of rare earth production and use, from geological availability, to recovery, extraction and separation from mineral ores, to manufacturing and use, to alternatives and substitutes. Special sessions also provided an overview of Japan's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization and ARPA-E's perspective on the issues surrounding rare earth elements.

The roundtable was chaired by LLNL's Ed Jones of the Atmospheric, Earth and Energy Division within the Physical and Life Sciences Directorate. Japanese participants haled from the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, National Institute of Advanced Industrial and Science and Technology (AIST), Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC), New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), Kansai University and Tohoku University. Participating U.S. organizations included DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and Office of Policy and International Affairs (DOE-PI); Colorado School of Mines, Golden Colo.; Naval Postgraduate School; Molycorp Minerals LLC, Greenwood Village, Colo.; NSTec, Las Vegas, Nev.; National Energy Technology Laboratory, U.S. Geological Survey; and Ames, Argonne, Idaho, Pacific Northwest, Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia national laboratories.