Energy Department’s new ‘Critical Materials Collaborative’ seeks to boost domestic supplies

The competition for strategic advantage in economic and military affairs depends more and more on critical materials. Now the Energy Department has launched an ...

The competition for strategic advantage in economic and military affairs depends more and more on critical materials. Now the Energy Department has launched an initiative it calls the Critical Materials Collaborative. Among its goals, to accelerate a domestic supply chain for critical materials. For more, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with the Senior Technology Manager for the Energy Department’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office, Helena Khazdozian.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Let’s begin with the basics here. What materials are we talking about? Is it lithium to put in batteries or does it go way beyond that?   

Helena Khazdozian  Definitely goes beyond that. So actually, just this summer, we released a new critical materials assessment, looking at what materials are critical for the clean energy transition in both the short and medium term. So, we think about those in a couple of different material classes. We have the rare-earth elements. These are generally used in magnets for wind turbine generators and electric vehicle motors. We have the battery materials for the lithium-ion batteries. So, lithium, cobalt, nickel. We have semiconductor materials, you know, silicon, gallium, silicon carbide that are used in solar photovoltaics, efficient lighting. We have lightweight materials. So, like magnesium and aluminum, are used in alloys and  lightweight vehicles. We have platinum group metals for clean hydrogen. And then we also have copper and electrical steel on the list. These are pretty ubiquitous materials that are especially used in transformers and motors for the electrical grid and also for power and energy.   

Tom Temin All right. So that’s a pretty comprehensive list. Is it fair to say, or accurate to say, that quite a number of these are in abundance in places elsewhere than the United States?   

Helena Khazdozian Yeah, certainly. You know, we have some materials here in the United States. Other materials are concentrated in other countries like cobalt, pretty notably concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo.   

Tom Temin Right. And a lot of them are in China, too, aren’t they?

Helena Khazdozian That’s right.

Tom Temin  And there is also the initiative that China has called Belt and Road, where they’re trying to get access to the minerals and materials in countries like the Congo, throughout Southeast Asia and so forth, where they make investments. That’s going on, fair to say?   

Helena Khazdozian Yeah. And I think more than just controlling the upstream mining of materials, a lot of the processing is actually concentrated in China. And so that’s a part of our strategy as we’re building out the domestic critical material supply chains, is making sure that we have the capacity to refine and process these materials. Otherwise, if you just mined the materials, you’ll have to export them, right? You won’t be able to keep them United States and support the manufacturing piece.   

Tom Temin All right. So tell us more about this initiative, the Critical Materials Collaborative. What form does it take? And you know, what is the activity that it’s actually doing?   

Helena Khazdozian Yeah, absolutely. You know, this has really been I think, a long time coming. You know, we first had our first critical material strategy in 2010. It’s the first time we assessed what materials are critical. That enabled us to start thinking more strategically about what our investments look like. So, we had investments in the Critical Materials Innovation Hub, or CMI, that used to be called the Critical Materials Institute. They’ve been operating for a decade doing early-stage research. At the same time, we had a program looking at producing rare-earth elements from coal-based feedstock. So, can we transform, you know, this mining waste into a resource in the United States? But this is the kind of first time that the Department’s thinking about how do we align all of these into some shared goals. Right. And it’s really important now because we are sitting here over 10 years later with over $8 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for critical minerals provisions to build out actual supply chains. Right. Commercial facilities, we have the Inflation Reduction Act with tax credits also to incentivize that production, manufacturing, and recycling. So, we have kind of a gap right now. We have all this applied R&D, really cool innovation happening, and we have deployment happening, but we don’t have the connective tissue to get that innovation into the world. And if we’re going to be globally competitive, we really need to be innovative, right? We need to reduce the costs of these technologies, and we want to reduce the environmental and health impacts while increasing the efficiency and the circularity of the materials. So that’s kind of what we’re trying to do here. We want to be that connective tissue to really accelerate the adoption of these critical materials innovations into the supply chain as it’s being built out. But we also want to be building out the innovation ecosystem around that. It takes researchers of all kinds from different sectors, national labs, academia, industry. So we’re really trying to align what we’re doing in the Department with other agencies and with the research community so that we’re, you know, trying to achieve a shared set of goals.   

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Helena Khazdozian. She’s senior technology manager for the Energy Department’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office. So, a couple of questions. Is there the belief – I mean, surely the processing capabilities are totally within the power of the United States to develop and do. But what about supplies where there simply aren’t that much availability of the basic material? Or is the thinking that we’ve got the material? If we wanted to be better at mining, better at finding it in large amounts of ore, whatever the case might be, that we actually could become self-sufficient. Is that part of the thinking?   

Helena Khazdozian So I think the idea that the United States could be self-sufficient for all critical materials is probably not realistic. We do need to, you know, work with allied countries to source some materials. But it’s not just looking at unlocking new mines. There’s lots of other things we can do, right. So, we actually have one of our offices looking at, you know, a mining of the future program to look at really surgical approaches to remove materials from the earth in a way that doesn’t leave a new legacy of mining waste in the United States. Really looking to improve the sustainability of those practices, but also looking at unlocking the mine waste. Right. Maybe we can achieve 50% of our needs from these, even though they’re low concentrations. Can we look at innovation to get them out? We also look at actually reducing our need, our reliance, right, so you can actually try to engineer out the materials. You know, they’ve been doing that in batteries for a long time with cobalt, and there’s lots of examples of that. Can we actually make sure we’re being good stewards, increase the efficiency of, you know, how we’re processing these. And then looking at circular economy, right, extending the lifetimes of those materials and use and eventually they’ll have to be recycled, right? We want to be positioned to do that as well. So,  it’s really a diversified approach that we take in the Department of Energy.   

Tom Temin And with the money you have, you will be then doing what, issuing research grants or creating incentives for industry? What form will the work take to create that connective tissue?   

Helena Khazdozian Yeah. So, within the CMC, it doesn’t have any money on its own. What it does, it’s aligning the offices that are competing out research to coordinate. To be a member of the CMC you want to go out and compete for funds, but then we’ll have lots of opportunity to engage, and I can talk more about what that will look like. But right now,  on the streets we have two funding opportunities. One is through the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management. It’s $150 million really to advance R&D, really thinking about like how can you translate that basic discovery into R&D as well as scaling it up. And then we also have in my office, the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office, we have a Critical Materials Accelerator program on the streets, and that’s really thinking about prototyping, maturing new technologies, kind of de-risking that step before you can go to a bigger pilot. The CMI is a big part of the CMC as well. This is again ten years standing, a really robust innovation ecosystem and engine all on its own. So, we’ll be able to learn from their experience as well. So that’s how to be a member, is know, go out to funding that’s being coordinated through the CMC.   

Tom Temin You must collaborate with some of the other federal agencies, as you mentioned. I imagine Commerce maybe might have a big part of this and Defense Department?   

Helena Khazdozian You know, we just started the CMC, we launched in September,  we’re still getting our footing underneath, but we will have other agencies engaged. Certainly the Department of Interior, NSF, DoD, wherever there’s research alignment, we want to have active engagement, but we’ll certainly continue to coordinate with other agencies that help set the policy framework, right. So we understand the context.   

Tom Temin Given the prevalence of some of these minerals in places that we’d rather not be concentrated, what about some of the other NATO allies or Canada, Mexico, maybe even South America, where access might be more assured at least than it might be in China? If China decides, well, no more cobalt for, you, no more lithium, you know, for you, are other nations maybe part of this alignment?   

Helena Khazdozian Yeah, the United States engages in a lot of different international engagement. We work through the International Energy Agency ministerials to coordinate with other countries. We have bilateral agreements with Canada and Australia and I think Brazil as well. The State Department has the Minerals Security Partnership Initiative that’s getting going. I’m not an expert on the international front, but certainly we do coordinate with other countries.   

Tom Temin And by the way, what is your background that you bring to this? Are you primarily a program type of federal person or are you a materials and manufacturing person?   

Helena Khazdozian I think of myself as a technologist, my background is in electrical engineering. I got my Ph.D. at Iowa State. I was at the Ames Laboratory for a couple of years before coming to DoE as an AAAS fellow and then stayed on what used to be the Advanced Manufacturing Office, now AMMTO, to continue to work on critical materials, I’ve been working on this issue for about ten years. I started researching this topic when I was in my graduate studies.  

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