They are rarer than gold, but they are essential for a broad range of new-energy technologies such as electric cars, wind turbines and solar cells.
Researchers call them "energy-critical elements," and a report urges the US government to take swift steps to safeguard the supply of 25 of them - elements from odd slices of the periodic table and often odder corners of the globe. "A shortage of any of these elements could significantly impact the large-scale deployment of new energy technologies," said Thomas Graedel of Yale University, a co-author of the report released Friday by the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society. The report was unveiled at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
On Thursday, Sen Mark Udall (D-Colo.) introduced a bill directing the US Geological Survey to conduct a study of the issue, a broad inquiry that would, among other things, track the global supply chain of these elements, which are often produced as byproducts of mining more abundant minerals, such as copper.
"With the importance of these materials for defense and the development of a robust clean-energy industry, it's now vital that we rebuild our domestic rare-earths industry," Udall said.
Already, the issue has gained traction in the Senate and the White House, and among members of both major political parties. The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy is coordinating a cross-agency governmental response. No shortages are imminent, said Robert Jaffe, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-author of the report released Friday. But so little information is available about the supply and market for these materials that corporations and government agencies are unable to plan for securing a supply, he said. "We are concerned at a fairly high level about a good chunk of the periodic table, about a third of it," Jaffe said.
(In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post)