The launch of the DOE’s $120 million Critical Materials Institute (nee “Hub”), the fifth energy innovation-oriented “integrated research center” initiated by the Obama administration, strikes me as mainly a balanced approach to the complex issue of securing for the United States adequate supplies of unique raw materials that are crucial to clean energy applications, electronics and other advanced applications.

By “balanced,” I mean an approach that appreciates that there are a lot of dynamic forces that affect the certainty–uncertainty of the supplies of, for example, rare earth elements. Besides science and engineering issues, these forces include geology, environmental considerations and mining technology, geopolitics, economics and business considerations, and educational planning. In other words, it is an approach that understands that neither bashing China nor “mine, baby, mine” are, by themselves, realistic long-term strategies.

Although the official announcement of the creation of the five-year CMI project was made last week, the concept of such a hub goes back many months and, as Eileen reported last March (see “DOE to hold Critical Materials Energy Innovation Hub workshop“), the DOE has been actively engaging the science and business communities for some time to discuss missions for such a hub and who should best lead it.

As it turned out, the DOE feels its Ames Laboratory is in the best position to lead what is meant to be a broad collaborative effort that encompasses federal and private labs, universities, and private industry.

In describing this hub, the DOE sketches out four “focus areas” or missions: develop substitutes, improve reuse and recycling, conduct crosscutting research, and diversify supply. As the administration’s point man on the Materials Genome Initiative, Cyrus Wadia, puts it, the purpose of the CMI is “to find solutions that can be applied at all stages of a material’s “life cycle”—from new ways to access it at the source, to better ways to recycle and reuse it after it has served its primary functions.”

In the above video, Alex King, director of the Ames Lab and designated leader of the CMI effort, describes the one particular goal slightly differently. Besides diversifying supplies and developing substitute materials and tools for recycling, King says the fourth goal is “forecasting.” He describes the latter as “trying to figure out what materials might become critical in the future” and acknowledges that such forecasting is “important, but a little bit different for a national lab.”

The devil, of course, is in the details. For example, in their article that appeared in the April 2012 Bulletin (“Issues of Scarce Materials in the United States”), Stephen Freiman and Lynette Madsen laid out the most comprehensive critical materials agenda I’ve seen, and its not clear (yet) how well the 17 goals they delineated match up with the directions charted for the CMI. Some, such as Freiman’s and Madsen’s call to “continue trade agreements with foreign sources to minimize supply disruption risk,” are appropriately outside the scope of CMI. Others, such as their suggestions to “support efforts to collect data on sources of critical elements” and “improve [acquisition] data exchange and analysis mechanisms” will be addressed by CMI participants, one hopes.

But, given that a national critical materials strategy also must encapsulate trade and policy issues, its only fair that CMI be seen as one crucial part of such a strategy, and not a panacea for the US’ interests.

Unfortunately, the trade and policy issues seem to be on the back burner while other political battles are being fought.

Another vital issue Freiman and Madsen raise is getting too little attention: workforce development and the lack of trained mining and mineral processing personnel, specialists in geology and other geosciences and specialists in related sciences and engineering fields that are trained in sustainability, beneficiation, processing, and recycling. If not directly, I think the CMI will provide some new impetus for making progress on this topic.

In summary, the new CMI seems to be a multidimensional step in the right direction, but the nation’s large critical materials strategy cannot be solve by technocracy alone. I don’t think the White House or Congress are oblivious to this, and interagency tasks forces have been meeting on this. The nation needs to have the CMI be an inspiring starting point and not an orphan in the US’ strategic material plans.

Here are some other Ames Lab videos about the critical materials research: