Green light reflection from a low-oxygen environment 3D printer laser deposition of metal powder alloys. Photo courtesy of The Critical Materials Institute, Ames Laboratory

Critical materials, including some rare earth elements that possess unique magnetic, catalytic, and luminescent properties, are key resources needed to manufacture products for the clean energy economy. These materials are so critical to the technologies that enable wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, and energy-efficient lighting that DOE's 2010 and 2011 Critical Materials Strategy reported that supply challenges for five rare earth metals—dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium, and yttrium—could affect clean energy technology deployment in the coming years.1, 2

The Critical Materials Institute (CMI) led by Ames National Laboratory and a team of research partners is a sustained, multidisciplinary effort to develop solutions across the materials lifecycle as well as reduce the impact of supply chain disruptions and price fluctuations associated with these valuable resources. By bringing together scientists and engineers from diverse disciplines, the CMI will address challenges in critical materials, including mineral processing, manufacture, substitution, efficient use, and end-of-life recycling; integrate scientific research, engineering innovation, manufacturing and process improvements; and find a holistic solution to the materials challenges facing the nation. The CMI will pursue research in four focus areas:

  • Diversify Supply - enable new sources of critical materials that are not now commercially viable, improve the economics of processing existing sources, and identify new uses for co-products and by-products that do not currently contribute to the economics of materials production.

  • Develop Substitutes - design and deploy replacement materials that have lower or zero critical materials content, and develop a knowledge-based approach to accelerate advanced material development and deployment.

  • Improve Reuse and Recycling - both reduce demand and increase supply by developing economically viable technologies for efficient material use in manufacturing, recycling, and reuse.

  • Conduct Crosscutting Research - develop theoretical, computational, and experimental tools necessary to support the basic science needs of the other focus areas; develop and apply strategies to assess and address environmental sustainability and the life cycle of new CMI developed materials and processes; and evaluate the social and economic viability of the CMI developed science and engineering solutions.

CMI is one in a series of Energy Innovation Hubs formed to accelerate scientific discovery of critical energy technologies. Energy Innovation Hubs are part of the Administration's clean energy research strategy established to harness American innovation. This strategy is focused on needed breakthroughs in important technologies to grow the clean energy economy and generate new, clean energy jobs. Previously established Energy Innovation Hubs include the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (Caltech), which focuses on advanced research to produce fuels directly from sunlight; the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), which is seeking to improve nuclear reactors through sophisticated computer-based modeling and simulation; the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster for Energy-Efficient Buildings (Penn State), which is working to achieve major breakthroughs in energy efficient building design; and the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (Argonne National Laboratory) working to advance next-generation batteries and energy storage technology.

CMI partners include the following:

Research PartnersCity, State
Ames LaboratoryAmes, IA
Idaho National LaboratoryIdaho Falls, ID
Lawrence Livermore National LaboratoryLivermore, CA
Oak Ridge National LaboratoryOak Ridge, TN
Brown UniversityProvidence, RI
Colorado School of MinesGolden, CO
Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research InstituteBartow, FL
Iowa State UniversityAmes, IA
Purdue UniversityWest Lafayette, IN
Rutgers UniversityNew Brunswick, NJ
University of California-DavisDavis, CA
Advanced RecoveryNewark, NJ
Cytec, Inc.Woodland Park, NJ
General ElectricNiskayuna, NY
Graver TechnologiesGlasgow, DE
Molycorp, IncGreenwood Village, CO
OLI Systems, Inc.Morris Plains, NJ
Simbol Materials, Inc.Pleasanton, CA

Read the Critical Materials Institute's DOE announcement and the original Funding Opportunity Announcement.

1 U.S. Department of Energy. 2010. Critical Materials Strategy. Washington, DC: DOE.
2 U.S. Department of Energy. 2011. Critical Materials Strategy. Washington, DC: DOE.