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American Resources Policy Network
Promoting the development of American mineral resources.
  • Materials Science Profiles of Progress – Advances in Metals and Minerals Research May Yield Breakthrough in Quest for Fusion Power

    “Thousands of years ago, humans discovered they could heat rocks to get metal, and it defined an epoch. Later, we refined iron into steel, and it changed the course of civilization. More recently, we turned petroleum into plastic, with all that implies. Whenever we create new materials that push the limits of what’s possible, we send the world down an entirely new path.

    Today, we’re on the verge of a revolution in materials science that will transform the world yet again. Scientists have developed tools that make it possible to design, build, and shape new ‘super materials’ that will eclipse what we once believed were physical limits, create previously unimaginable opportunities, and expand the capabilities of what we already think of as exponential technologies in ways limited only by our imaginations.”

    A few years ago, this is how a Forbes commentator characterized the materials science revolution that is transforming the way we look at metals and minerals.

    It is indeed a revolution, and we’re right in the middle of it. 

    The latest case in point – and feature in our Materials Science Profiles of Progress series – comes to us via the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which has entered into a research partnership with newly-founded company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) to develop a new generation experiments and ultimately power plants based on fusion power – which is hailed as a “potentially an inexhaustible and zero-carbon source of energy.”

    The collaborative project has already attracted funding from an Italian energy company and is looking for additional investors. 

    Explains David Chandler, writing for the MIT News Office:

    “Fusion, the process that powers the sun and stars, involves light elements, such as hydrogen, smashing together to form heavier elements, such as helium — releasing prodigious amounts of energy in the process. This process produces net energy only at extreme temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius, too hot for any solid material to withstand. To get around that, fusion researchers use magnetic fields to hold in place the hot plasma — a kind of gaseous soup of subatomic particles — keeping it from coming into contact with any part of the donut-shaped chamber.

    The new effort aims to build a compact device capable of generating 100 million watts, or 100 megawatts (MW), of fusion power. This device will, if all goes according to plan, demonstrate key technical milestones needed to ultimately achieve a full-scale prototype of a fusion power plant that could set the world on a path to low-carbon energy. If widely disseminated, such fusion power plants could meet a substantial fraction of the world’s growing energy needs while drastically curbing the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global climate change.”

    MIT and CFS researchers will seek to develop superconducting electromagnets using magnets made from a newly available superconducting material — a steel tape coated with a compound called yttrium-barium-copper oxide (YBCO) within three years, followed by a design and construction phase for a compact and powerful fusion experiment, called SPARC.

    According to MIT, the project seeks to run concurrently to and complement the findings of an international research collaboration currently underway at the world’s largest fusion experiment site in southern France, called ITER. 

    Researchers are optimistic that a breakthrough is within reach. As Martin Greenwald, deputy director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center says: 

    “Our strategy is to use conservative physics, based on decades of work at MIT and elsewhere. (…) If SPARC does achieve its expected performance, my sense is that’s sort of a Kitty Hawk moment for fusion, by robustly demonstrating net power, in a device that scales to a real power plant.”

    If and when that “Kitty Hawk moment” comes for fusion, yttrium, barium and copper will be key – just as, fun fact, that 1903 Wright Brothers motor was made of copper-aluminum alloy 

    Other Materials Science Profiles of Progress:
    REE Extraction From Coal
    CMI Public-Private Partnership Studies New Ways to Capture Gateway Metals and Critical Co-Products

    Researchers Turn to Bioengineered Bacteria to Recover REEs

    CMI Announces New Partnership to Recover REEs from E-Waste

    CMI Expands Collaborative Research Focus to Include Lithium and Cobalt
    DoE’s New Research Center on Lithium Battery Recycling to Leverage Resources of Private Sector, Universities and National Laboratories

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  • Materials Science Profiles of Progress: DoE’s New Research Center on Lithium Battery Recycling to Leverage Resources of Private Sector, Universities and National Laboratories

    Speaking at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s American Energy Innovation Council last week, Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced the launch of a new research center on lithium battery recycling.

    The Battery Recycling R&D Center will focus on reclaiming and recycling “critical materials (e.g. cobalt and lithium) from lithium based battery technology used in consumer electronics, defense, energy storage, and transportation applications,” and will be led by Argonne National Laboratory along with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

    Said Sec. Perry:

    “America’s dependence on foreign sources of critical materials undermines our energy security and national security. (…) DOE will leverage the power of competition and the resources of the private sector, universities, and the National Laboratories to develop innovative recycling technologies, which will bolster economic growth, strengthen our energy security, and improve the environment.

    A commendable effort, the initiative is a direct response to Presidential Executive Order 13817, which, issued in December of 2017, calls for “developing critical minerals recycling and reprocessing technologies” embedded into a broader strategy to “ensure secure and reliable supplies of critical minerals.” 

    While we applaud the launch of the new research hub, DoE’s reference of the “broader strategy to ‘ensure secure and reliable supplies of critical minerals’” in its press release is important. As followers of ARPN will know, recycling will not obviate the need for traditional mining and is as such not a panacea for mineral resource supply woes – and we are still waiting for the release of the — by now long-overdue — report by the Department of Commerce subsequent to 13817 outlining said “broader strategy” and recommending specific policy steps to implement it. 

    In the meantime, however, with innovations in the field and concerted efforts to not only improve extraction technologies, but to also develop products and materials in ways that lend themselves to easier reclamation of metals, recycling does represent a viable opportunity to alleviate pressures, and we look forward to following the efforts of the Center.

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  • 2018 – A Year of Incremental Progress?

    In case you hadn’t noticed amidst holiday preparations, travel arrangements and the usual chaos of everyday life – 2019 is just around the corner, and with that, the time to reflect on the past twelve months has arrived. So here is ARPN’s recap of 2018: Where we began. Unlike previous years, we started 2018 with [...]
  • Passing the Torch – Change in Leadership at Critical Materials Institute (CMI)

    There’s a lot going on in the realm of critical minerals these days – and that does not only apply to policy, but also personnel changes. After five years of building and leading the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), a Department of Energy research hub under the auspices of Ames Laboratory, its Director Dr. Alex King [...]
  • Materials Science Profiles of Progress: CMI Expands Collaborative Research Focus to Include Lithium and Cobalt

    The Critical Materials Institute (CMI), a Department of Energy research hub under the auspices of Ames Laboratory, is expanding its research on tech metals “as rapid growth in electric vehicles drives demand for lithium, cobalt.” According to a recent Ames Lab press release, the Institute will focus on maximizing the efficiency of processing, usage and [...]
  • Materials Science Profiles of Progress: CMI Announces New Partnership to Recover REEs from E-Waste

    A new year, a new installment of our Materials Science Profiles of Progress series: The Critical Materials Institute (CMI), a U.S. Department of Energy Innovation Hub under the auspices of Ames Laboratory has announced a new collaboration entered into by one of its industry associates to recover Rare Earth Elements (REEs) from electronic waste.  Momentum [...]
  • 2017 – a Year of Mixed Signals: No Grand Strategy – But Some Signs We May Be Digging Out of Our Resource Dependency

    Amidst the chaos of Christmas shopping, holiday parties and travel arrangements, the end of the year is customarily the time to take stock of the last twelve months and assess where to go from here. Here is our recap of 2017: On the heels of a year that very much presented itself as a mixed [...]
  • “Materials Science Profiles of Progress” – REE Extraction From Coal

    In the fairy tale realm, Rumpelstilskin was able to turn straw into gold. Meanwhile, in the real world, as part of our feature series “Materials Science Profiles of Progress,” we’re taking a closer look at a recently-announced research partnership that may not be able to turn straw into gold, but promises to extract precious Rare [...]
  • Materials Science Profiles of Progress: CMI Public-Private Partnership Studies New Ways to Capture Gateway Metals and Critical Co-Products

    As part of our latest feature series “Materials Science Profiles of Progress,” in the context of which we highlight positive steps towards the development of the comprehensive mineral resource strategy our country is so sorely lacking, we’re zeroing in on a promising public private partnership that recently celebrated its first birthday. In October of last [...]
  • Materials Science Profiles of Progress – Researchers Turn to Bioengineered Bacteria to Recover REEs

    Followers of ARPN are well aware that we have been calling out policy makers and other stakeholders for their inaction when it comes to working towards the development of a coherent, forward-looking and comprehensive mineral resource strategy – and we frequently point to missed opportunities to work towards this goal. While we stand by our [...]

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