Rare Earths: Push to rebuild depleted U.S. workforce begins in the classroom

By Manuel Quinones, Environment & Energy Publishing reporter
Originally appeared on Greenwire: Monday, February 13, 2012

A jump-start for the U.S. rare earth elements industry starts with a three-credit course at Iowa State University.

Professor Vitalij Pecharsky’s class is aimed at developing a workforce to help strengthen U.S. production of rare-earth elements crucial to modern energy, transportation and communication technologies.

“As far as I know, this is the only course offered in the country which deals with all aspects of rare earths,” said Pecharsky, a distinguished professor in materials science engineering. “In effect, it’s from the mine to the product.”

There are 17 rare-earth elements — scandium, yttrium and 15 lanthanides — and they are found grouped together in the periodic table. The global rare-earth market is dominated by China — home to half the world’s minable deposits — which is locking up its supplies to meet surging domestic demand.

The United States, experts say, faces a long, hard catch-up effort.

Karl Gschneidner, another Iowa State professor, who’s often described as the world’s foremost authority on rare-earth scientific issues, said the United States dominated the global rare-earth market until the 1980s, when China began turning its rare earths into finished products and manipulating prices. U.S. rare-earth production stopped in 2002.

“The technically trained engineers and scientists working on rare earths containing products from mining, to separations, to processing, to primary rare earth chemical and metallurgical production, to manufacturing semi-finished and final products were laid-off and moved to other fields or retired,” Gschneidner wrote in a paper on China’s rare-earth dominance that’s been widely circulated on Capitol Hill.

U.S. rare-earth industries that employed about 25,000 people before 1980 now employ about 1,500 people, Gschneidner said. By contrast, the Chinese Society of Rare Earths has 100,000 members, according to a 2011 report on critical materials by the Department of Energy.

“Unfortunately, when the Chinese basically operated like a cartel, they were able to keep rare-earth prices artificially low,” Pecharsky said. “With this situation, of course, there was not really a need in this country to prepare people, especially people who are ready to go into commercial application of rare earths.”

And with the disappearance of a trained workforce, Gschneidner wrote, “innovation and new products utilizing rare earth elements has slowed dramatically.”

It could take a decade or more, he said, for the United States to take a leading role in technological advancements of rare-earth products.

‘Intellectual infrastructure’

Gschneidner, who in addition to his work at Iowa State is a senior metallurgist at DOE’s Ames Laboratory, predicts the United States will need to put dozens of college-trained workers into rare-earths fields each year for the next decade.

Companies looking to capitalize on Chinese efforts to limit rare-earth exports and restart the U.S. rare-earths engine are telling Congress that the United States lacks the “intellectual infrastructure” needed to succeed in the field.

“When we look long-term at the challenges of rebuilding a rare-earth industry in the United States, one of the biggest challenges is workforce development,” said Andy Davis, a lobbyist for Molycorp Inc., the only U.S. rare-earth producer. “There essentially isn’t a pipeline.”

Molycorp recently reopened the Mountain Pass mine in California.

“I know our technologists have been frustrated in even trying to find folks who have the fundamental core skills in chemistry that would make them solid contributors to the technological development within our company,” Davis said, adding that the company has secured a working team through investments in training.

Beyond rare earths, the worker crunch is hurting companies wanting to increase U.S. production of other materials critical to clean tech ventures.

Luka Erceg, president and CEO of Simbol Materials, a company looking to extract lithium from geothermal brines for batteries, noted that no U.S. university offered geothermal energy degrees.

Erceg told lawmakers in December that because domestic production of materials like manganese and lithium largely ended in the ’70s, his company has had trouble hiring.

“In fact,” he said, “it is taking us up to nine months to find qualified candidates for key positions at Simbol.”

Government’s role

Despite months of talk about the need for action on rare earths, Congress has yet to pass any major legislation on the issue. And while small-government advocates say companies are moving to address the global shortfall, there is consensus about the need for a federal role.

Rare-earth experts say the federal government should help with research and workforce promotion. China, they point out, has a State High-Tech Development Plan, also known as Program 863.

“China has established whole laboratories to exploring rare earths,” Cindy Hurst, a Foreign Military Studies Office analyst, said at a Washington, D.C., briefing on the issue. “China overwhelmingly has a lot more research and development. Both basic and applied research.”

Legislation passed in the House Natural Resources Committee last year (H.R. 2011) calls for a review of federal workers with expertise in rare earths and related fields.

A bill (S. 1113) by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has a section devoted to education and workforce development, including a grant program.

Another measure (S. 383), by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), calls for “partnerships between industry and institutions of higher education, including technical and community colleges, to provide on-site job training.”

Gschneidner said the government would have to remain involved in encouraging rare-earth workforce development for at least the next several years. He’s calling for scholarship money and a national research center to address the issue. He and other experts have stressed to lawmakers that funding can stimulate innovation.

The United States is not at a standstill, however. In the wake of recent budget negotiations, for example, Congress approved $20 million to fund a federal energy innovation hub focused on critical materials.

Last April, Molycorp and the Ames lab announced a research and development agreement for rare-earth magnets. Erceg said his company sought help from DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for help with workers. And another U.S. lithium mining project, Western Lithium Corp., signed on with Argonne National Laboratory.

Erceg said a $3 million grant from DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Program helped the company gain credibility, investment and more than double its workforce.

DOE’s strategy report on critical materials mentions federal grants to the University of Delaware for rare-earth magnet development. Also, the National Science Foundation is backing a center involved in developing rare-earth recycling headquartered at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in cooperation with the Colorado School of Mines.

“Important topics for research include material characterization, instrumentation, green chemistry, manufacturing engineering, materials recycling technology, modeling, market assessment and product design,” the DOE report says.

Other schools focusing on rare earths include the University of Maryland and Montana Tech.

“Really, what manufacturers need is a comprehensive action here,” said Steven Duclos, a top scientist at General Electric Co. “The fact is that currently today there isn’t a robust workforce.”

New professionals

Gschneidner stresses that the United States hasn’t fallen behind China in knowledge of rare earths, just in the number of people working in the field. The Ames lab, he said, has a history of research on the subject dating back to World War II.

That’s why it makes sense for Iowa State, which is located in Ames, to lead a push for educating the rare-earth workforce.

“Throughout my entire life, I was involved in rare earths,” Pecharsky said. “So I do know quite a bit of rare earths.”

Pecharsky’s class has four undergraduate students, 12 graduates and five other students taking the class online. His goal is to explore current research and provide practical knowledge.

“I doubt they are going to be working in a mine,” he said of his students. “They will most likely work at processing plants, in its production of rare earths, or they are going to be working at any company which either makes products that contain rare earths or uses products that contain rare earths.”

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