Purdue joins research effort to solve shortage of rare earth metals critical to U.S. energy security

November 15, 2013  

Carol Handwerker

Carol Handwerker, the Reinhardt Schuhmann Jr. Professor of Materials Engineering, discusses materials sustainability issues in electronics with Purdue students, from left, Gamini Mendis, Shane Peng and Milea Kammer. Handwerker will play a key part in Purdue's partnership with the Critical Materials Institute, developing a technology roadmap for applying a systems view of the risks to pursue new materials and energy technologies instead of relying on rare earth materials. (Purdue University photo/Vincent Walter)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Researchers at Purdue University are part of a consortium of national laboratories, industry and other universities forming the Critical Materials Institute - a new national research hub focused on developing solutions to the shortages of rare earth metals and other materials critical for U.S energy security.

A five-year, $120 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy launched the Critical Materials Institute (CMI) in September as the newest DOE Energy Innovation Hub. Led by the Ames Laboratory in Iowa, the hub is one of five Energy Innovation Hubs established by the DOE since 2010.

Purdue researchers collaborating with the CMI will receive up to $2.5 million over the next five years for their work.

"As a partner of the Critical Materials Institute, Purdue contributes its expertise in manufacturing, design and lifecycle engineering," said Carol Handwerker, the Reinhardt Schuhmann Jr. Professor of Materials Engineering. "Purdue also is a leader in sustainable manufacturing and had one of the first national courses on critical elements."

Joining Handwerker on the Purdue CMI team are Ananth Iyer, the Susan Bulkeley Butler Chair in Operations Management at Krannert; John Sutherland, the Fehsenfeld Family Head of Environmental and Ecological Engineering; and Fu Zhao, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and environmental and ecological engineering.

"Rare earth elements are essential for U.S. manufacturing competitiveness, especially for clean-energy technologies such as wind turbines, electric vehicles and energy-efficient lighting," Sutherland said. "The Critical Materials Institute will focus on technologies that will make better use of the rare earth elements we have access to as well as eliminate the need for materials that are subject to supply disruptions."

A 2011 DOE report indicated that supply challenges for five rare earth metals - dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium - could affect clean-energy technology deployment in the coming years.

In response, the DOE and others have focused on addressing the effort. For example, the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy have supported more than $40 million in magnet, motor and generator research.

Sutherland will lead an effort to develop closed-loop material cycles for rare earth elements (REE) used in making magnets for lighter and more efficient generators that power wind turbines. These materials also are in hybrid vehicles and hard disks. Through closed-loop processing cycles, wastes are completely recycled or reused, never entering the environment.

A single conventional gear drive train for a wind turbine, for example, requires 100 kilograms while a direct-drive system requires up to 600 kilograms of REE. An estimated 30,000 to 180,000 tonnes of REE will be needed to manufacture enough wind turbines to reach the U.S. goal of meeting 30 percent of its needs with wind energy by 2030.

Sutherland will collaborate with researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to work with industrial partners to identify opportunities for improving manufacturing and recycling.

"Recovering these valuable materials will reduce vulnerability to supply disruptions, reduce U.S. dependence on foreign supplies and reduce the cost of renewable energy production," he said.

With his project, Iyer will develop an analytical framework for better understanding global material supply chains, including CMI's impact on critical materials economics.

"The proposed analytical framework will attempt to quantify the mechanisms that are driving critical materials supply and demand including logistical developments, process improvements and policy implementations," Iyer said.

Zhao and his team will work to develop enhanced analytical tools for forward-looking assessments of raw materials that are, or may become, critical to the deployment of energy technologies. They also will assess the technical and economic potential of CMI research and identify paths to commercialization.

Handwerker and her team will develop a technology roadmap in collaboration with the entire CMI enterprise for applying a systems view of the risks to pursue new materials and energy technologies instead of relying on rare earth materials.

The researchers will work with stakeholders to identify current and future industry needs based on issues such as performance, reliability and manufacturing as well as economics and supply chain. From there, they will pinpoint potential supply chain gaps before examining alternative materials and technologies that reduce supply or demand across the supply chain.

A key element of the technology roadmap is engagement with industry and government stakeholders to regularly examine goals and metrics identified in the roadmap.

In addition to Purdue, the CMI project includes teams from Idaho National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory as well as university research partners Brown University, Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute of Florida Polytechnic University, Iowa State University, Rutgers University, Colorado School of Mines and the University of California-Davis.

Industry also will be key to this national initiative, providing commercial expertise and advice on relevant problems across multiple application domains. Partners are Molycorp Inc., GE Advanced Recovery, Cytec Inc., OLI Systems Inc., Simbol Materials Inc., and Graver Technologies.

CMI will initially focus on developing solutions to shortages for five REEs as well as lithium and tellurium, and the technologies - including electric vehicle motors and batteries, wind turbines, energy-efficient lighting and thin-film solar cells - that use these critical materials.

The DOE Energy Innovation Hubs are modeled after the strong 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 in the last decade to pioneer advanced techniques in biotechnology, including biofuels.

Writer: Phillip Fiorini, 765-496-3133, pfiorini@purdue.edu

Sources: Carol Handwerker, 765-494-0147, handwerker@purdue.edu

              John Sutherland, 765-496-9697, jwsuther@purdue.edu

              Ananth Iyer, 765-494-4514, aiyer@purdue.edu

              Fu Zhao, 765-494-6637, fzhao@purdue.edu

Related website:

Advanced Manufacturing Office-Critical Materials Institute

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