CLEANTECH: Storing Minerals

By Published On: January 29, 2010

As California races to become a renewable energy center, could a lack of access to key minerals stand it its way? In its first meeting, a new energy center at the California Institute of Technology plans to examine that and other questions related to strategic materials considered key to the green energy revolution. This spring, Cal Tech’s Resnick Energy and Sustainability Institute is set to gather leading thinkers on materials to examine access strategies for clean energy companies, explained institute director Harry Atwater. Key materials the institute plans to evaluate are rare earth metals used to make magnets for some wind turbines and lithium used in batteries in both pure electric and hybrid electric vehicles. Atwater noted that California and the U.S. will need more of these materials to move to renewable energy, but that most of the minerals are produced overseas. Some security experts compare the growing need for the minerals to the nation’s strategic need for imported oil today. Lack of access could cripple the economy once it becomes dependent on green technologies. “The way to think of materials is in terms of geopolitics,” Kent Butts, national security issues branch director at the U.S. Army War College, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies earlier this year. Nations that must rely on imports are “vulnerable,” he said. The U.S. has a ways to go to assure ready and affordable access to materials required for renewable energy technology. China, for instance, has cornered the rare earth metals mining industry, controlling 95 percent of worldwide production and driving up the price, according to the U.S. Magnet Materials Association. China--which has the world’s largest reserve of rare earth metals, according to the U.S. Geological Survey-- has become dominant by limiting and taxing exports, according to Peter Dent, Electron Energy vice president. China also has one of the largest reserves of lithium, which is used to make lithium ion batteries. The batteries not only are being developed for plug-in hybrid and pure electric cars, but also for storing renewable energy in the grid. Southern California Edison late last year won a $25 million Department of Energy grant to have A123 Systems install a large lithium ion battery to store power on its grid. Last fall, EnerDel entered a deal to supply five 1 MW lithium ion batteries to Portland General Electric in Oregon. In another example, China produces some 60 percent of the world’s indium, which is a crucial metal used in thin film photovoltaic cells, a technology considered a game changer in the solar market. Without developing an access policy for such materials, the U.S. could face a “strategic minerals crisis” in the coming decade as demand increases by leaps and bounds with the transition to renewable energy, warned Roman Kupchinsky, AZEast Group partner.

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