A much as I gripe about DOE’s funding delays, I do think kudos should go to the agency for making a first attempt at a crafting a modern plan for thinking about strategic materials and figuring out what crucial steps must be taken in both the short- and medium-range periods ahead. It’s simply called Department of Energy Critical Materials Strategy and it was released, without much press coverage, last week.

This is a significant step forward in that 1) there is an attempt to think ahead in terms of roles in critical technologies, 2) there is an attempt to embrace changes in the marketplace and supply chain, 3) there is an acknowledgement that international cooperation and diplomacy must play a role, and 4) that the DOE’s admits that its strategy (which it acknowledges has having its own shortcomings because it focuses on clean energy) is only one piece of a broader national strategy that must eventually encompass other governmental agencies and stakeholders. In other words, this is the first real evidence I have seen that it’s dawning on some governmental leaders that the USGS annual mineral reports and Cold War-era material stockpile practices fall woeful short of a real strategy.

To its credit, the DOE recently has been hosting several conferences on the subject, engaging national and international science, engineering, business and mining experts to assemble projections, look at international cooperation and begin projects aimed at finding substitutes for elements and materials that are of both high importance and are at high risk for supply disruptions. (These conferences have included the U.S.-Japan Roundtable on Rare Earth Elements Research and Development for Clean Energy Technologies Agenda, the Trans-Atlantic Workshop on Rare Earth Elements and Other Critical Materials for a Clean Energy Future and the ARPA-E Workship on Rare Earth and Critical Materials.)

I am going to read over the report over the holidays, and I may have more comments later, but I should note that the DOE is already planning an updated version of this strategy “based upon additional events and information” by the end of 2011.