An elementary energy problem - February 18, 2011
The United States needs to “take control of its energy future” and prevent future resource crunches of ‘energy critical elements’. So says a new report from the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society, which echoes many of the same concerns and solutions as the US Department of Energy’s December 2010 report on the same topic (see Nature News blog post). Action seems to be happening off the back of these reports, the report’s authors told the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in DC today: US senator Mark Udall (Colorado) has introduced a bill on the same subject – the critical minerals and materials promotion act of 2011.
The reports and the bill focus on elements that are used in everything from efficient lighting to electric cars and wind turbines. Many of these elements are rarer than gold, and some are almost exclusively mined in China. In the face of skyrocketing demand, researchers, businessmen and politicians are seeking to find cheaper, more stable supplies, or invent alternative materials that use less of the critical elements. If they fail, future shortages of critical elements could hamstring the production of game-changing clean-energy technologies.
The new report differs from the DOE’s effort in that it takes a broader view of critical elements. “We are concerned to a relatively high degree about a good chunk of the periodic table,” said report co-author Tom Graedel of Yale University. “Maybe about a third.” By contrast the DOE report focused on six elements they identified as particularly critical.
The authors call for more information to be gathered (the US Geological Survey doesn’t even have statistics about the mining of individual critical elements, they note), and for a federal push on research into substitutes and recycling. They conclude that building up stockpiles of critical elements is probably not a good idea, since it wouldn’t spur innovative research.