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US DOE to fund rare earth alternatives research

5 May 2011

The US Department of Energy (DOE) announced up to $130 million to be available from DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) in its fourth round of funding. One of the projects—Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies (REACT)—will support research to find replacements for naturally occurring yet scarce minerals that are used in many energy technologies. The REACT project will receive up to $30 million.

Rare earths are naturally occurring minerals with unique magnetic properties that are used in many emerging energy technologies, for example in electric motors and other electric components. Rare earths have also been commonly used in many emission control catalysts for internal combustion engines. For instance, cerium—a rare earth element—is a typical washcoat component in three-way catalysts, as well as in many diesel particulate filters, NOx adsorber catalysts and diesel oxidation catalysts.

As demand for these technologies continues to increase, rare earths are rapidly becoming more expensive due to limited global supply. With China being the major producer, the supply became further limited by the rare earths export restrictions adopted by the Chinese government. Over the past year, prices of many rare earths have increased by 300-700%. The rising prices have already escalated costs for some energy technologies and may jeopardize the widespread adoption of many critical energy solutions by US manufacturers, said the DOE.

ARPA-E seeks to fund early-stage technology alternatives that reduce or eliminate the dependence on rare earth materials by developing substitutes, with focus on two key areas: electric vehicle motors and wind generators.

In addition to rare earth alternatives, the announced funding covers projects in four other technology areas: breakthroughs in biofuels, thermal storage, grid controls, and solar power electronics. The five new technology areas will join ARPA-E’s seven existing programs in power electronics, battery technologies, building cooling, non-photosynthetic biofuels, grid energy storage, and carbon capture.

Source: US DOE