Energy critical elements drive the future

The economy is driven by energy needs and the importance of finding new sources of energy will only increase. This was made clear by Dr. Alan J. Hurd in his guest lecture on energy critical elements (ECEs).

ECEs include rare earth metals and other chemical elements that are required to manufacture energy-related systems. In his lecture, Hurd, an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico and researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, focused on the development of these elements and their role in the international realm.

As Hurd described, developing these elements is key to the future energy security of the world. ECEs play an essential role in the construction of solar panels and windmills. With solar and wind energy as the front-runners in renewable energy, finding sources for ECEs and sustaining their production is vital.

Internationally, new mining techniques in China have pushed the eastern country to the forefront of low grade ore production. “In the 1980s, the US dominated rare earth minerals production. Now, China has 97% of the market,” said Hurd.

China has figured out a way to extract the ore by first finding metal-ion-absorbed clays in which rare earth metals reside. Then, the surrounding vegetation is cleared and a large pit is excavated. Miners then pour in sulfuric acid and carboxylic acid, precipitating the desired element. Finally, they collect the element and drain the leftover acid into nearby rivers.

The US has been unable to compete with China due to the US’s environmental regulation. China has overpowered American rare earth mines such as the Mountain Pass Mine in California. In 2002, the Mountain Pass Mine went out of business because of the increase in competition from China.

This increase in competition initially proved stifling for mines across America, but now the demand for ECEs is increasing and the market is opening up again. This, in addition to an announcement by China in 2010 that they were going to reduce their export quota of rare earth elements by 40%, has given the Mountain Pass Mine new life. It plans to reopen in 2012.

A recent report by the American Physical Society Panel on Public Affairs and the Materials Research Society recommended that the US provide reliable statistical analysis of ECEs along with support for further research. This will lead to a more stable market for ECEs and allow for further technological development.

With a decreasing supply of fossil fuels, ECEs are essential for the future of the economy. Therefore it is necessary to preserve the ECEs and ensure that they are around for future generations. As it was described by Nobel Prize winner and experimental physicist Robert Richardson, “One generation does not have the right to determine the availability forever.”

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