Like coal and gold, the rare earths are mined out of the ground. However, in any given ore, they are mixed together with other rare earths. So although they are not actually rare, they are difficult to mine. "They're in low concentration, and it's very hard to mine them and separate them out, so it's challenging and extremely energy-intensive to produce rare earth materials ready for industrial manufacturers; it requires a lot of electricity, water and chemicals," said Berkeley Lab Senior Scientist David Shuh. "This area of study has been ignored over the last two decades, largely due to insufficient research and development support."
Shuh is the lead investigator on a Berkeley Lab project that takes a multidisciplinary approach to the issues, reinvigorating the study of the fundamental chemistry and materials sciences while taking advantage of advances in nanoscience, earth sciences, genomics and energy analysis techniques to devise innovative solutions.
While the United States has some scientists working in the rare earth field, China has at least 100 times as many. "The U.S. used to have the leadership in the chemistry and materials sciences of these materials, but now we are losing competitive advantages in these areas," Shuh said. "We need to rev up rare earth science from top to bottom if we want to retain leadership in the use of these critical materials."
Batteries, photovoltaics and lighting are just a few of the industries that could be crippled without reliable access to materials such as cerium, neodymium and terbium. Dysprosium is used in high-performance magnets (for cars, wind turbines, disc drives and a myriad of other uses) essential for the implementation of many clean energy technologies. In addition to the rare earths, there are a number of other so-called "energy critical elements" in other parts of the periodic table, including lithium, helium, cobalt and rhen
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DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory