At the MIT Energy Conference last week, the energy was palpable – literally. The event, which annually attracts hundreds of energy professionals and students (including a number of AEL fellows and authors this year), brought to the table a refreshing mix of hard-nosed analysis, technical insight and unbridled enthusiasm about the challenges and opportunities for the world’s collective energy future.
One of these future challenges lies in the question of strategic materials for energy, which a panel of experts tackled on the second day of the conference. In the process of co-organizing this panel – along with two fellow teammates from the MIT Energy Club - I have grown increasingly aware of the issue of strategic materials and the important role they play in clean energy technologies.
The highlight of the panel was an introduction by MIT professor Robert L. Jaffe to the policy report on Critical Elements for Energy that was recently released jointly by the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society. As the report describes, rare earth minerals, such as helium and lithium, are becoming increasingly relevant for energy solutions in the 21st century:
“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.”
However, these materials are extremely scarce, unevenly distributed around the globe, and they rarely benefit from stable supply chains:
“The production complexities of elements primarily obtained as by-products create a difficult environment for planning and investment in these elements, as well as in the new technologies that require the unique attributes of the elements themselves. Large fluctuations in price can occur after joint-production options are saturated and before new supplies hit the market.”
The serious economic, environmental, and security-related challenges of these critical elements have yet to be met. In addition to stronger coordination within the US federal government and better information dissemination under the auspices of the US Geological Survey, Dr. Jaffe also advocated for a greater role for R&D:
“A focused federal research and development (R&D) program would enable the United States to both expand the availability of and reduce its dependence on ECEs [energy critical elements]. This federal R&D would be particularly critical to the competitiveness of small U.S. companies that are unable to engage in their own ECE basic research programs.”
Dr. Jaffe’s insights came alongside comments from Diana Bauer, who described the policy role of the US federal government from the perspective of the Department of Energy, as well as Terence Stewart, a trade law specialist who addressed the role of the WTO and international trade in managing critical elements. Finally, Alastair Neill, an executive from the private-sector firm Dacha Strategic Metals, explored the importance of rare earth elements and stressed the role of the private sector in addressing these issues in the long run.
As Bauer, Stewart and Neill shared their own perspectives on the topic, the utter complexity of the critical materials issue came into full view. In particular, the speakers reached a curious disagreement about China’s recent restrictions on rare earth exports, with Neill suggesting that China may actually have done the world a favor while Stewart criticized Beijing for going against its WTO obligations. And as Bauer described the conclusions from a recent DOE report on critical energy materials that she was recently involved in, it became clear that the proper role of the US government in tackling critical materials will turn out to be equally complex in the long run.
The panel at the MIT Energy Conference came as a stark reminder that the US cannot meet the emerging challenge of critical elements for energy without sustained involvement from the private sector, international organizations and the federal government. Much is at stake: our high-performance gas turbines, our hybrid cars, our wind turbines and our energy R&D laboratories all depend crucially on critical elements. This is not an issue we can afford to take lightly.