2011-09-30

Co.Exist

How The Department Of Energy Plans To Wean The U.S. Off Rare Earth Metals

The DOE’s latest round of funding focuses on finding alternatives to rare earth metals, which are found in everything from wind turbines to computer hard drives.

Rare earth metals—a group of 17 chemical elements found in solar panels, wind turbines, electric car motors, lithium-ion batteries, and more—are critical to a future reliant on clean energy. The problem is that China has the majority of the supply, and it has used that leverage to slow exports and raise prices. The U.S. is working on building up rare earth production sites, but the Department of Energy is sinking millions of dollars into an alternative: rare earth alternatives.

The DOE announced $156 million in clean energy technology funding this week, including 15 research projects that focus on what the organization calls Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies for Energy (REACT). The projects include electric vehicle motors containing little or no rare earth metals, a manganese-based replacement for rare earth magnets found in wind turbines and electric vehicles, a cerium-based replacement for rare earth magnets, and a carbide-based composite replacement for rare earth magnets.

Why so many magnet replacements? Small, light, and powerful rare earth magnets are found in most audio speakers, computer hard drives, wind turbine generators, electric cars, and even self-powered flashlights. In other words, if our supply of rare earth elements gets cut off, we’re in trouble.

All of the funding comes from the DOE’s ARPA-E program, which invests in high-risk, high-payoff clean technology (the program is based on DARPA). Post-Solyndra, many people may be skeptical of the DOE’s investments. But without rare earth metal alternatives, the U.S. won’t just lack new clean energy technology; it one day may not have the infrastructure to even support today’s gadgets.

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