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Silver Linings: Materials Science Revolution Marches On Amid Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic may have torn through communities, brought public life to a halt, thrown markets into turmoil, and laid bare the extent of our complex and deep critical mineral resource dependencies. It has not  — thankfully, considering the materials challenges we’re up against — stopped the ongoing materials science revolution.

As policy makers and industry stakeholders look to address our mineral resource supply chain vulnerabilities during and beyond the pandemic, researchers are forging ahead to provide innovative solutions that not only transform the way we use certain metals and minerals, but have the potential help alleviate our over-reliance issues. 

We have outlined several promising research breakthroughs and projects as part of our Materials Science Profiles of Progress series here

In the same vein, the Department of Energy has stepped up its efforts to promote collaboration between its research hubs and the private sector to look for ways to diversify mineral resource supply, develop substitutes and drive recycling of critical minerals and rare earth elements. 

In a recent piece for Real Clear Energy, U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouilette outlines some of the initiatives spearheaded by DoE and its research hubs, ranging from “identifying and extracting critical minerals and REEs from previously untapped sources such as our vast coal reserves,” over capturing lithium from waste product generated by geothermal power production to developing “high-performance magnets used in renewable energy technologies and advanced motors with reduced REE content.”

With regards to critical materials and REE recycling, Brouilette cites two promising developments:

“The first involves using a high-speed shredder that turns old computer hard drives into scrap containing significant amounts of REE content. Our scientists apply an acid-free recycling process to the scrap that recovers REEs with greater than 99-percent purity, reducing the steps involved in the previous process and lowering recycling costs.

The second involves recovering nickel, cobalt, and manganese from disassembled electric vehicle battery packs. A recent American Manganese Inc. project, on which DOE partnered, generated recycled products with purities greater than 98-percent of the 3 critical minerals.”

In a time when keeping up with the headlines is anxiety-inducing for many, it is nice to see that some positive developments are on the horizon.  They may seem wonky, but their importance should not be underestimated, because, as Brouilette concludes in his Real Clear Energy piece: 

“Our over-reliance on countries like China that are not reliable trading partners for critical supply chains threatens our economic and national security. We must reclaim our independence over critical mineral and rare earth element supplies to secure a prosperous future.”