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

If you’re a technology buff, you’ve probably seen a lot recently about additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, and critical rare earth materials.  But did you know that additive manufacturing can potentially solve the nation’s rare earth material challenge?
Critical materials include certain rare earth elements that are vital to moving the nation’s clean energy economy forward.  Rare earth elements contain magnetic, catalytic and luminescent properties – unique qualities – which make them important for manufacturing clean energy products, such as solar cells, wind turbines, electric vehicles and energy-efficient lighting. Critical materials are also valuable for making the magnets inside the electronics we use every day, such as mobile phones and tablets, televisions, and computers.  These high-value performance characteristics, combined with a lack of useable substitutes, means that a high demand for critical materials could risk major U.S. shortages.
Additive manufacturing precisely deposits materials only where they are needed. Where conventional manufacturing subtracts and removes material, which generally results in reduced efficiency and more waste, additive manufacturing enables new shapes and designs that were previously impossible, minimizes waste, and lowers manufacturing costs.  As an example, printing magnets for motors or hard drives produces a product closer to the final needed shape than conventional manufacturing – which requires cutting and shaping, and wastes more of the rare earth elements.
Additive manufacturing can also help shorten the development time for new magnets by quickly testing large numbers of new rare earth substitutes.  In the picture above, multiple chambers supply powders to the 3D-printer laser deposition head in a matter of seconds, making it possible for researchers to create large libraries of material compositions for evaluation and potential use in new products.
To address this opportunity and help provide the U.S. manufacturing industry secure an adequate supply of critical materials, the Energy Department’s Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) launched the Critical Materials Institute (CMI) in Ames, Iowa. One of CMI’s goals is to reduce the amount of rare earth elements needed for magnets used in electric vehicle motors and wind turbines by at least 50% by developing substitutes and new manufacturing methods.  Additive manufacturing technologies are expected to play a key role in achieving the CMI goal.