March 24, 2011, 2:33 PM — Sometimes, when you are so far behind in a particular game of strategy, it's OK to fallback, regroup and slowly reevaluate your plan of attack .
That's about where the U.S. is right now - in the regrouping phase, as the Department of Energy this week sent about its second Request For Information plea to help it assess the rare earth materials world and develop some sort of plan of attack by year-end.
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The crux of the situation: China controls some 97% of the world's rare earth materials - and currently sells them for $44,361 a ton - almost double 2010 prices , according to the Wall Street Journal. The materials are used to build everything from wind turbines, hybrid-vehicle batteries, weapons guidance systems, oil refining catalysts, computer disk drives, televisions and monitors, compact fluorescent light bulbs and fiber-optic cable.
Rare earth materials are used in many applications for their magnetic and other distinctive properties and include 17 elements with names such as lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, yttrium and scandium.
What the DoE is looking to do is update its Critical Materials Strategy expected later this year to include additional analysis of rapidly-changing market conditions and identify specific steps forward for substitution, recycling and more efficient use of materials identified as critical.
The Critical Materials Strategy, first released in December outlined some major concerns including:
• Several clean energy technologies — including wind turbines, electric vehicles, photovoltaic cells and fluorescent lighting — use materials at risk of supply disruptions in the short term. Those risks will generally decrease in the medium and long term.
• Clean energy technologies currently constitute about 20% of global consumption of critical materials. As clean energy technologies are deployed more widely in the decades ahead, their share of global consumption of critical materials will likely grow.
• Of the materials analyzed, five rare earth metals (dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium), as well as indium, are assessed as most critical in the short term.