A few short decades ago, few could have imagined that the world would be seriously concerned over something called dysprosium. Also known as number 66 on the periodic table, dysprosium was once just another element for chemistry students to memorize but is now one of the most sought-after and critically needed materials on the planet.
Belonging to a family of elements known as lanthanides--also called rare earths--dysprosium and other rare earths are used in almost every high-tech gadget and clean energy technology invented in the last 30 years, from smart phones to wind turbines to hybrid cars. Although the United States was self-sufficient in rare earths or obtained them on the free market until the early 2000s, the vast majority are now mined in China and the supply has been subject to fluctuations. The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) aims to change the status quo by reviving the study of these critical materials to better understand how to extract them, use them more efficiently, reuse and recycle them and find substitutes for them.
In its 2011 Critical Material Strategy released last month, the DOE said that "supply challenges for five rare earth metals (dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium) may affect clean energy technology deployment in the years ahead." It also recommended enhanced training of scientists and engineers to "address vulnerabilities and realize opportunities related to critical materials."
"If we are going to achieve what we need to do in terms of managing climate change, we absolutely have to fix the materials problem--it’s the linchpin for clean energy technologies," said Frances Houle, a Berkeley Lab scientist who is Director of Strategic Initiatives in the Chemical Sciences Division. "Because Berkeley Lab is such a broad institution, many of the pieces required are already here. We have the chemistry, the earth science, the materials science, the theory. Not very many institutions can say that."
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 rhenium, that are crucial to a clean energy economy and are currently found in a limited number of places.
The resources devoted to studying the rare earths have not changed much since around the time the color television was invented. But in the meantime, their price has skyrocketed, increasing by nearly a factor of 1,000 in some cases, and scientists and engineers continue to rely on decades old science to address the energy challenge today. Moreover, new ways to use rare earths are being developed all the time.
More advanced study of the chemical and materials properties of the energy critical elements would not only aid in mining, separating, processing, and using them in current applications more efficiently but would also allow scientists to better understand--and thus find--substitutes for them. Plus, it should accelerate technological breakthroughs. "With better science, you’ll have better discovery and better technology," Houle said. "It’s not feasible to go on a fishing expedition any more. You must have theory to guide the discovery effort."