US DOE to award $30 million to research of domestic sources of critical elements and minerals

April 13, 2021

The US Department of Energy (DOE) intends to award up to $30 million in support of scientific research ensuring that US businesses can reliably tap into a domestic supply of critical elements and minerals – rare earth (REE) and platinum group elements (PGE) in particular – needed to produce clean energy technology.

Jennifer Granholm, US Secretary of Energy, stated, “America is in a race against economic competitors like China to own the EV market – and the supply chains for critical materials like lithium and cobalt will determine whether we win or lose. If we want to achieve a 100% carbon-free economy by 2050, we have to create our own supply of these materials, including alternatives here at home in America.”

Roughly thirty-five elements serve as key components to several clean-energy and high-tech applications: magnets in wind turbines, batteries in electric and conventional vehicles, phosphors in energy-efficient lighting and displays and catalysts for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

The US is grappling with chronic domestic supply shortages of critical materials; currently, imports account for 100% of the supply of fourteen of these elements and over 50% of the others. This leaves American green technology production at risk of distribution from trade disputes, natural disasters or armed conflicts.

This funding opportunity is intended to gain further understanding of the fundamental properties & mechanisms of critical minerals, elements, and materials to improve separation and extraction processes. This will hopefully enable discovery and design of alternates to critical materials that reduce, or eliminate, the need for critical elements.

The DOE is seeking applications that address one or more of the following scientific research topics:

  1. Physical and Chemical Properties. Both theoretical and experimental research are needed to understand the role of REE and PGE in determining the physical and chemical properties of materials and molecules. Development of new theoretical models, with validation by experiments that include state of the art characterisation, is needed to accurately account for properties that will accelerate the design and discovery of materials and molecules with the potential to reduce or eliminate the use of critical elements without loss of functionality or performance.
  2. Geological Systems. Experimental and theoretical research is needed to understand the properties and processes responsible for migration and enrichment of REE or PGE in the earth’s crust, including magmatic, hydrothermal, sedimentary, and weathering environments. Applications must focus on providing molecular-scale answers to fundamental questions about such processes.
  3. Separation Science. New separation principles and approaches are needed to enable innovation and improve the efficiency of removing REE and PGE from complex mixtures, such as those derived from ore processing, mine tailings or recycled materials. Approaches may involve bio-inspired (e.g., enzymatic) pathways, multiscale simulation of transport and separation, operando experiments, and data science. Applications must focus on determination and understanding of chemical speciation that controls key aspects of separations.
  4. Design and Synthesis of Materials or Molecules. Hypothesis-driven research is needed to establish design and synthesis approaches that result in enhanced functional materials or novel catalytic reaction pathways, and that reduce or eliminate the use of REE and PGE. Areas of interest include developing techniques that control properties at the atomic level through the preparation, purification, processing, and fabrication of well-characterised materials and molecules with energy relevant functionalities.

This fundamental knowledge will help support the DOE’s strategy to diversify supply, develop substitutes and improve reusability and recycling of critical minerals and materials. While multiple elements have been identified as critical based on their availability and technological importance, this funding opportunity is restricted to basic research related to rare earth and platinum group elements.

National laboratories, universities, industry, and nonprofit organisations may apply for the three-year awards, to be selected based on peer review. The Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES), within the Department’s Office of Science, will manage the investment, granting awards both for single investigators and larger teams. Up to $10 million of the $30 million in planned funding is contingent on congressional appropriations.

The pre-application submission deadline was April 12.

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