EHS Management

What to Do About Rare Earths

Develop a rare-earth inventory. One bill would direct the U.S. Geological Survey to develop a rigorous methodology for determining which minerals are critical and then use that methodology to designate critical minerals. The bill would establish a collaborative effort between USGS and the U.S. Energy Information Administration to generate annual reviews of domestic mineral trends as well as forward-looking analyses of critical mineral production, consumption, and recycling patterns.

Expedite permitting. The same bill would establish a high-level working group comprising representatives from EPA; the U.S. departments of Interior, Energy, Agriculture, Defense, Commerce, and State; the U.S. Trade Representative; the Chief of Engineers of the Army Corps of Engineers; and a designee from the Executive Office of the President to review, assess, and evaluate the permitting process for exploration and development of domestic critical minerals while maintaining environmental standards. Another section of the bill seeks to facilitate the permitting process under all federal agencies and speed up coordination and consideration of permit applications that are under state review.

Develop alternatives. According to Duclos of GE Global Research, the optimal solution regarding elements that have a high at-risk factor is to eliminate the need for the element altogether. Duclos acknowledges that there are elements with unique properties that cannot be duplicated by substitutes. One approach in such cases is to modify the design of the system to compensate for the modified properties of the substitute material. Duclos cites two such cases where his company developed a substitute to Helium-3 for neutron sensors used to detect nuclear materials at the nation’s ports and borders and a process that relied less on a diminishing supply of Rhenium for use in high-efficiency aircraft engines and electricity generating turbines. Regarding rare earths, Duclos notes efforts to reduce reliance on Terbium in linear fluorescent lamps by developing light emitting diodes (LED), which require no Terbium. Terbium is used to improve the performance of high-strength permanent magnets.

Recycle. “If the United States committed itself to meeting its critical materials needs in large part through recycling, there is no nation on earth that could match America’s resources,” testified Mark Caffarey, Executive Vice President of Umicore USA, a global materials technology company. Caffarey reported that in 2010, Umicore recovered approximately $6.5 billion in metals value from discarded end-of-life products and industrial by-products. “The United States has the largest ‘above-ground’ mines of critical materials in the world, in the sense that this country’s supply of industrial scrap and end-of-life automobiles, electronics, and electronic appliances — whether they are in wreckers’s yards, land-fills, or Americans’ basements and attics — can’t be matched by any other nation,” Caffarey continued. While Umicore’s business focus is critical materials, Caffarey notes that the company is now performing research on the possibility of recycling rare earths from various sources of end-of-life materials and is evaluating the possibility of stepping into funded projects where this can be further addressed.

Provide money. Marcilynn Burke of the Department of Interior told lawmakers that DOI already possesses many of the authorities called for in one bill to improve the coordination and efficiency of the mining permitting process while maintaining environmental standards. However, putting those streamlined procedures into action would be difficult without additional funding. “Any activities conducted to fulfill the objectives of the bill would require substantial resources and would need to compete for funding with other priorities,” testified Burke.

Finally, a report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes a glaring gap in educational opportunities in the U.S. for those seeking to pursue careers in critical materials and rare earths. According to CRS, the only U.S. public university with a rare earths specialty is the Colorado School of Mines. Meanwhile, China employees thousands of scientists in both rare earth chemistry and rare earth application, said CRS.