Photo: Dysprosium (Ree Handbook)
Although they might have archaic-sounding names to the public, dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium because of their rarity hold the secret to future technology as well as the success of clean energy and they are preoccupying the most powerful nations of the world.
Gaining access to these elements is a priority for U.S. energy strategy, which sees that China controls 95 percent of the production of the so-called rare earths, which are used in wind turbines, solar panels and the batteries of electric and hybrid vehicles.
With that situation in mind, the U.S. Energy Department mobilized scientists and experts from business and academia to seek solutions, a team that will be part of the new Critical Materials Institute.
Iowa-based Ames Laboratory and its director, Alex King, are heading up the project, which will receive $120 million in financing over the next five years.
The main aim of the CMI in the short term will be to detect possible deposits of these metals in the United States, as well as to work with existing operations to ensure that they are viable.
King gave the example of the Mountain Pass mine in California, which for decades was the biggest supplier in the world for rare metals but had to close in 2002 due to environmental problems.
The mine reopened in 2010, although it is facing a difficult market situation given China’s exercise of price controls by restricting rare earth exports.
That practice has been denounced by the European Union, the United States and Japan, while China insists that its intention is to put the brakes on excessive production to lessen environmental damage.