“The thing about rare earths is that they’re not actually rare—but they might as well be,” says Aaron Feaver, director of JCDREAM, the Joint Center for Deployment and Research in Earth-Abundant Materials at Washington State University.
Along with critical elements such as cobalt, lithium, and indium, rare earth elements are essential to our smart device-rich lives. But those devices come at a cost.
“Rare earth elements aren’t concentrated enough to be easy to mine,” Feaver says. “They have similarities in electronic structure, making them very useful but also very difficult to differentiate from each other and hence extract. You end up with a mixture of a whole bunch of rare earth elements and have to use a solvent-laden and energy-and waste-intensive processes to separate them.”
That’s why, Feaver says, a bipartisan group of Washington legislators “sponsored a visionary bill” that created JCDREAM in 2015. Using seed grants and larger capital investments, JCDREAM’s goal is “to accelerate the development of next generation clean energy and transportation technologies in Washington.” Feaver says that, as far as he knows, JCDREAM is unique: Washington is the first state looking to ensure an economically stable and environmentally sustainable high-tech future through research on earth abundant alternatives for critical materials and rare earths.
Critical materials pop up everywhere, from computer memory and catalytic converters to fluorescent lights and cell phones. Rare earth mining and processing is dominated by China and is used as leverage against the United States in ongoing trade disputes.
As for cobalt, Feaver says, “We used to talk about blood diamonds but now we have blood batteries.” Cobalt is used in the cathodes of phone batteries. Children mine the metal in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Miners reduce ores of copper and nickel by hand to get at the cobalt. They inhale toxic dust so thick they can asphyxiate in the 100-meter-deep pit mines.
Lithium is also a component in batteries of portable electronics and electric vehicles. A major source of lithium is the Atacama Desert in the Andes, where mining threatens the water supply of farmers and flamingoes.
This is no way to run a stable and sustainable global economy, dependent on metals mined under dubious circumstances. Huge spikes in, for instance, the price of cobalt in recent years have manufacturers jittery while uncertain relationships with key mineral suppliers, like China and the DRC, only add to the unease.
The keys to stability, Feaver says, include finding earth-abundant replacements for some of these materials, as well as souped-up recycling efforts and simply using less of a critical material to begin with.
Feaver says that “a clean energy transformation is coming.” He points to a couple of indicators: “Solar, for example, is now vastly cheaper to deploy on the grid than coal. It’s cheaper to drive a Tesla than a Camry. We’re here to help ensure that our next generation of clean energy and transportation are built on a sustainable supply chain of materials that are not focused on critical elements.”
Holding up his iPhone, Feaver says it’s “a microcosm of the technologies being used to deploy clean energy and green transportation infrastructure.”
Take the touch screen, for instance, which is coated with a very thin layer of ITO, indium tin oxide. While indium isn’t exactly rare, it is a byproduct of other forms of mining and, like other critical materials, China is a major supplier. Using funds from JCDREAM, researchers at the University of Washington developed the first ink-jet printer capable of printing a sub-micro copper grid that can replace ITO in touch screens. The grid is not only more transparent but also more conductive. And copper is fairly abundant, with major deposits scattered around the globe, including the United States.
3D printing metal offers some intriguing possibilities for reducing use of materials. Feaver explains that most metal parts are tooled from solid ingots of an alloy. With 3D printing, though, the deposition of materials can be precisely controlled. A jet engine strut, for example. that needs to be heat-resistant could contain ceramic at one end and stainless steel at the other to protect it from corrosion. You still might use critical materials, he says, but you’d use much less as you print a part layer by layer instead of tooling away the unwanted material from an ingot.
Recycling could reduce the use of critical materials, too. Feaver says American Maganese has developed a process to recycle batteries, resulting in a product that “battery manufacturers can drop right in to their supply chain.” That technology is currently being scaled up for commercial use.
Before coming to WSU, Feaver researched and developed the use of highly abundant carbon and silicon for use in batteries. Both technologies were spun off as successful companies.
And storage, whether in batteries or some other technology, is the big challenge in getting renewable energy on the grid reliably. Solar may be cheap to deploy, but if the power is on only when the sun shines, it’s not very useful. Energy demand typically surges, especially in the northern latitudes, when the sun isn’t shining, early in the morning and in the evening. And once the grid gets to about 40 percent renewable, he says, it becomes unstable.
Our grid storage capacity is a fraction of what we use every day, Feaver says. With our current petroleum-based energy economy, “we don’t need storage, we just turn on turbines when we need more electricity.” Those turbines might burn non-renewable natural gas or be powered by water, although hydropower also has serious environmental costs.
“Your storage is the pile of coal, the natural gas supply, or the gas tank—the energy is stored as chemical energy. And fossil fuels are very efficient, which is why it is hard to compete with the energy density of gasoline.”
But energy density is not destiny. JCDREAM is funding projects at WSU Pullman and elsewhere that Feaver describes as “phenomenal battery research.” Substituting earth-abundant materials for conflict and critical ones might mean an individual battery doesn’t carry as much energy but its production is less fraught with environmental and social concerns and is easier to recycle.
Learn more at JCDREAM (Joint Center for Deployment and Research in Earth-Abundant Materials at Washington State University)