2013 saw the launch of the ‘Critical Materials Institute’ (CMI), one of five U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funded ‘Hubs’ that combine the talents of researchers and developers, with the aim of severing the reliance on critical raw materials (CRMs) mainly to facilitate the uptake of green energy. Run by the Ames National Laboratory in Iowa, the CMI consolidates the efforts of seven leading universities, three national laboratories and several industry partners.
The philosophy behind the ‘Hubs’ model is to allow for an environment that encourages communication and collaboration between scientists, engineers and the private sector in such a way as to break down the barriers between each discipline, in order to produce results as quickly as possible. This research arrangement (the brain child of Nobel Prize winner, Steven Chu) moves away from the traditional ‘sole-research-sole-development’ set up of the DOE.
The CMI’s research can be separated into four main objectives:
1. Diversification of supply – developing technologies to enable access to new sources of CRMs
2. Substitution of CRM’s – research into other materials to reduce use of CRMs
3. Recycling of materials – to enable an increase in CRM supply
4. Prediction of future criticalities – developing a range of theoretical and computational models to further understand future CRM market trends
The variety of scientific, engineering and industrial backgrounds should yield innovative technologies that incorporate more abundant elements and fewer CRMs, all at a fast development pace to enable products to rapidly become deployable. This in turn should strengthen the U.S’s domestic materials security as it lessens the dependence on imports from geo-politically unstable countries.
From the launch of these ‘Hubs’ which include the ‘Joint Centre for Artificial Photosynthesis’ (JCAP) and ‘Energy Efficient Buildings’ (EEB), it would appear that the U.S. is firmly on track to developing green energy solutions. Europe equally shares the U.S.’s concerns over materials security, but how do EU research efforts compare with this unconventional R&D culture?
To date the European Commission has proposed the ‘European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials’ with goals echoing that of the U.S. CMI by comprising five main themes:
1. Exploration of deposits
2. Extraction of difficult to reach resources
3. Processing of waste
4. Recycling of waste
5. Substitution of CRMs
Likewise, this proposal will in part target developing substitute materials for green technologies and should maintain and further European competitiveness within this market; but there appears to be a broader scope to this research in comparison to the CMI, by also including research into a wide range of alternatives to industrial raw materials such as natural rubber, paper and wood.
Will a significant difference in the outcomes of research between the U.S. and Europe be seen? Only time will tell, but the formation of such research groups demonstrates that the EU and the U.S. are making CRM substitution a priority.
Author: Philippa Mitchell