Energy Critical Elements: Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies

Executive Summary


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A number of chemical elements that were once laboratory curiosities now figure prominently in new technologies like wind turbines, solar energy collectors, and electric cars. If widely deployed, such inventions have the capacity to transform the way we produce, transmit, store, or conserve energy. To meet our energy needs and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, novel energy systems must be scaled from laboratory, to demonstration, to widespread deployment.

Energy-related systems are typically materials intensive. As new technologies are widely deployed, significant quantities of the elements required to manufacture them will be needed. However, many of these unfamiliar elements are not presently mined, refined, or traded in large quantities, and, as a result, their availability might be constrained by many complex factors. A shortage of these “energy-critical elements” (ECEs) could significantly inhibit the adoption of otherwise game-changing energy technologies. This, in turn, would limit the competitiveness of U.S. industries and the domestic scientific enterprise and, eventually, diminish the quality of life in the United States.

ECEs include rare earths, which received much media attention in recent months, but potentially include more than a dozen other chemical elements. The ECEs share common issues and should be considered together in developing policies to promote smooth and rapid deployment of desirable technologies.

Several factors can contribute to limiting the domestic availability of an ECE. The element might simply not be abundant in Earth’s crust or might not be concentrated by geological processes. An element might only occur in a few economic deposits worldwide, or production might be dominated by and, therefore, subject to manipulation by one or more countries. The United States already relies on other countries for more than 90% of most of the ECEs we identify. Many ECEs have, up to this point, been produced in relatively small quantities as by-products of primary metals refining. Joint production complicates attempts to ramp up output by a large factor. Because they are relatively scarce, extraction of ECEs often involves processing large amounts of material, sometimes in ways that do unacceptable environmental damage. Finally, the time required for production and utilization to adapt to fluctuations in price and availability of ECEs is long, making planning and investment difficult.

This report surveys these potential constraints on the availability of ECEs and then identifies five specific areas of potential action by the United States to insure their availability:

  1. Federal agency coordination;
  2. Information collection, analysis, and dissemination;
  3. Research, development, and workforce enhancement;
  4. Efficient use of materials; and,
  5. Market interventions.

Throughout this report, narratives on particular ECEs are provided to clarify these five action areas. The report’s specific recommendations can be found in their entirety in Section 4.