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DOE Issues Plan to Ensure Access to Critical Materials

16 December 2010 3:42 pm
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Ensuring the availability of rare earths and other strategic materials to the industries that need them would require giving the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) powers that it does not currently possess. That's one important message of a new DOE policy unveiled yesterday.

David Sandalow, DOE assistant secretary for policy and international affairs, said that the department's new Critical Materials Strategy recognizes that these materials have unique properties that make them essential to high-tech products such as computer screens and disk drives. But they are also important in advancing a clean-energy economy, he noted. The materials are essential for the magnets in the motors of wind turbines and electric vehicles, the batteries of electric vehicles, the thin-film semiconductors in photovoltaic cells, and the phosphors of high-efficiency fluorescent lighting.

The strategy identified five rare earth metals (dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium, and yttrium) as well as indium as "most critical in the short term," as measured by their importance to clean-energy technologies and the risk of supply disruption. Several recent expert reports have warned of the possibility of shortages, and China's apparent cutoff of supplies of rare earths to Japan in the wake of a territorial tiff earlier this year certainly got the attention of Congress and White House officials.

DOE's new strategy focuses on facilitating U.S. mining and processing of the critical materials, supporting research into alternatives, promoting more efficient use, and recycling. The report notes that some of its recommendations, such as research, fall squarely within DOE's core competencies. But others, such as permitting for mining, are beyond its jurisdiction. The report recommends increased international cooperation, particularly on research. It also noted that DOE lacks the authority to provide loan guarantees for the mining or processing of critical materials.

Legislators are eager to help find solutions, says Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology, which authored legislation on the topic. "Our bipartisan bill would provide ready-made authority for many elements of DOE's strategy and would directly address the lack of authority for loan guarantees described in the new report," said Gordon, who retires next week after 26 years in Congress. "We should not lose sight of the report's comment that this is more than just a mining issue, and we must deal with the entire production, manufacturing, and recycling chain. " The House of Representatives approved the committee's bill (H.R. 6160) in September, but it failed to advance in the Senate.

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