Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Wednesday, June 3, 2015
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Iowa State Cuts Ribbon for Critical Materials Institute 

After a nine-month wait, the U.S. Department of Energy’s new Critical Materials Institute (CMI) has opened its doors at Iowa State following a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Over the coming years the new research center is expected to help develop solutions to address domestic shortages of rare earth metals and materials that are integral to meeting the country’s energy security needs.

In January the DoE announced that the university had been selected to house the new institute, and awarded them $120 million which they will receive over five years. Part of that funding has already gone into renovating Iowa State’s Wilhelm Hall, where the institute is housed, but the remainder is earmarked for research.

As the newest edition to the DoE’s Ames Laboratory, the institute will become the fifth Energy Innovation Hub in the nation. In keeping with this role, it has set its goal to develop solutions for shortages of rare earth metals and other materials to U.S. energy security.

Existing hubs include the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at Caltech, the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster for Energy-Efficient Buildings at Penn State, and the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory.

Each hub is tackling a different approach to generating a clean energy economy, from improving nuclear reactors with modeling and simulation to advancing next-generation batteries, and each one is modeled after the touchstones of American scientific research, such as the Manhattan Project, Lincoln Lab at MIT, AT&T Bell Laboratories and the Bioenergy Research Centers that most recently pioneered advanced biotechnology techniques such as biofuels.

“We are looking at cases where there isn’t enough resources to fit the need,” said Alexander King, director of the Critical Materials Institute. “We’re trying to create technology that makes mining cheaper and more environmentally friendly, looking for substitute elements and during the manufacturing process how we can be more efficient.”

Some of the rare earth elements of interest, such as those deemed critical by the Department, include dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium, which are all critical to clean energy tech.

Continuing, King pointed out that while there are clear environmental benefits to the institute’s research, this should not overshadow the economic impacts it’s expected to have.

“The number of places we can get materials from is limited,” King noted. “Our job is to reassure that there is a sufficient supply at stable prices so we can manufacturing these [renewable] products here and maintain jobs.”

Some items that would benefit from the materials research include wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles and energy efficient lighting, which not only builds on the eco-friendly impact that the institute hopes to make, but will further the country’s push for energy independence.

Tom Lograsso, interim director of the Ames Lab, elaborated on this by outlining four focus areas for the new institute: diversifying the national supply of resources, finding substitutes that cut dependence on foreign oil, increasing manufacturing efficiency, and finding ways that these first three objectives can cross over to help accomplish the remaining two goals.

“It really is key to the CMI to find solutions,” Lograsso said. “Sometimes it is geothermal, economics or even politics that are the key factors.”

The Ames Lab is one of 17 across the country, which include Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. And although CMI is a federal facility, the laboratory will work with professors, students and university researchers to help reach its goal.

“The CMI has built the right team, management, and technical plan and is ready to pursue its mission to eliminate the criticality of materials as a barrier to adopting clean energy technologies,” said King.

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