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 Alternative Technology

Innovation and implementation of multiple technologies that use fewer or no critical metals to decrease demand and preclude future critical element crises


Critical element crises are driven not only by shortages in supply, but by the demand for technologies that use the critical elements. As a result, alternatives to technologies that use a significant amount of critical elements are key to decreasing both demand for critical elements and the chance of future critical element supply bottlenecks that would limit production of technologies employing the limited materials. In this context, "alternative technologies" refer to technologies that use fewer or no critical elements due to improved design or manufacturing processes.

The goals of alternative technologies are as follows:

  • decrease demand for critical elements
  • ensure a more secure supply of the technology that was formerly reliant upon that element.
  • new innovations that will result in products with increased efficiency and lowered costs
  • decrease chance of future critical materials crises by using more common materials and using a wide variety of alternatives

To accomplish these aforementioned goals, many different alternative technologies must be developed that employ more common materials. To develop these alternative technologies, Mission 2016 advocates funding research and development (R&D) of alternatives and encouraging the use of alternatives.

Funding and support for R&D and the implementation of current alternatives must come from governments as well as from industries. R&D involves a large investment of capital and sometimes has a high level of risk as not all R&D initiatives will result in viable products. While market pressures will drive companies to seek alternative technologies, the high-risk, high reward nature of R&D for alternatives will dissuade some companies from investing. Despite R&D being in the long-term interests of companies, the private sector cannot be solely relied upon for initiative for R&D, especially if there are rough economic conditions. Capital-intensive R&D ought to be further encouraged through government funding and incentives.

Governments must also play a role in the case of implementing current alternative technologies. In some cases, current alternatives, despite using more common and /or less expensive materials, are not being implemented because they are less efficient than the technologies that they would replace. A case-by-case cost benefit analysis is necessary in order to determine in which applications, if any, a less efficient alternative can become a substitute. For alternatives whose decrease in efficiency is minimal compared to the benefit from reducing demand for a critical element, the government may need to provide incentives in order for such technologies to become cost-competitive with technologies using strategic elements. Additionally, further R&D may improve the efficiency of existing alternatives.

Encouragement of R&D and implementation of alternative technologies is essential to ensuring that there will be alternative technologies that will decrease demand for critical materials. As R&D can take years to result in viable alternatives on the market, steps to encourage R&D and implementation of alternative technologies must be taken in the present day.


Limits in supplies needed for certain technologies as well as a desire to improve existing products has always driven the development of alternative technologies. Funding and incentives for R&D and the implementation of alternatives has come from both governments and industries.

Types of Alternative Technologies

Alternative technologies can be categorized in terms of their impact on critical element usage:

  • new technologies that supplement existing products that involve critical elements and improve efficiency,
  • technologies that replace critical elements
  • design refinements that decrease the necessary quantity of critical elements.

Some alternative technologies do not replace the role of critical elements, but rather make existing processes significantly more efficient. For example, lithium-ion batteries have become increasingly important for renewable energy endeavors like wind, solar, and electric vehicles. Since lithium-ion batteries were invented, researchers have more than doubled their energy capacity (Radon, n.d.). However lithium-ion batteries are most limited in lifespan ("Is lithium-ion the ideal battery?", n.d.). One of the new innovative ways to greatly increase the rechargeability and energy capacity of lithium-ion batteries is to use vanadium oxide nanowires as the cathodes, which in effect, reduces the energy lost in lithium-ion batteries (Mai, Xu, Han, & Luo, (2011). This, and other increases in energy storage technology has allowed for increased commercial viability, but entails the use of a rare earth element, not to mention lithium's strategic importance.

Vanadium redox batteries are also a promising technology because they can be used for 35-50 years, as opposed to 3-5 years for lithium-ion batteries, generate little heat, can charge and discharge simultaneously, and have low self-discharge (Hodge, 2011). Recently the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found a way to increase energy storage in vanadium redox batteries by 70 percent by using both sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid in the electrolyte solution ("Electric Grid Reliability", 2011). Since vanadium can make lithium-ion batteries more efficient or can be used in a redox battery with a significantly longer lifespan, overall less critical material needs to be used. Vanadium battery technologies thus represent an alternative technology that does not replace rare earth elements but increases the efficiency of technologies involving the elements, thus potentially decreasing the demand.

Alternatives that Supplant Critical Elements

An example of an alternative technology that would replace a critical element is a material developed by Brown University chemist Shouheng Sun. Sun and his researchers created a graphene sheet covered with cobalt and cobalt-oxide nanoparticles that is nearly as efficient as platinum at catalyzing the oxygen reduction reaction (Stacey, n.d.). Shaojun Guo, a published postdoctoral researcher in Sun's lab, said the new material "has the best reduction performance of any non-platinum catalyst" (Stacey, n.d.). Platinum group elements are in "limited supply" according to Sun, but their catalytic properties have been challenging to match and the supply chain can be easily disrupted since the vast majority of PGEs are mined in South Africa (Stacey, n.d.). Such developments iterate the importance of innovation, and funding for similar research. How? Did this research yield a result that can be used with cost in mind? Is this really feasible? I hope so, but you should address feasibility here.

Alternatives that Decrease Amount of Critical Element Needed

A final example of a way to reduce the necessity of critical elements is the refinement of current technologies. For example in wind turbines at high wind speeds, eddy current losses and inductive heating greatly reduce the efficiency of rare earth element magnets, such as sintered NdFeB (Morcos, n.d.). However, improved power electronics and control algorithms have the potential to boost output of a non-permanent magnets or lower-energy permanent magnets, such as injection-molded ferrite, to levels comparable to those of Neodymium magnets (Morcos, n.d.). More research and attention could be used productively by refining current technologies that must use critical elements.

Government Support

There are many cases of governments funding and supporting R&D for alternative technologies. International cooperation in the form of between governmental organizations and between companies can help facilitate research and development. In December 2010, the United States and European Union sent forty-two experts to the Trans-Atlantic Workshop on Rare Earth Elements and Other Critical Materials for a Clean Energy Future (Aguar, 2011). Since the workshop consisted of professionals, engineers, and scientists involved in fields directly affected by REEs and other critical materials the group delineated a comprehensive list of ideas for research collaboration between the US and EU. Topics discussed were as follows: cooperation and collaboration on modeling and design tools, nanotechnology, reducing the usage of catalysts, process improvements, permanent magnets with less critical material, devices without permanent magnets, thinner photovoltaic cells, LEDs with less REE phosphors, organic LEDs, refinements in batteries and fuel cells, and batteries with less critical materials (Aguar, 2011). The EU, Japan, and US met in October 2011 at the EU-Japan-US Trilateral Critical Materials Initiative Conference on Critical Materials for a Clean Energy Future.Workshops in the conference focused on research and development both for sustainable and cost-effective processing and recycling of critical materials and using less critical materials in wind turbines and motors (Critical Materials Strategy, 2011). At the conference participants agreed on the importance of alternate materials development, reduction of critical material, increasing recycling of critical material, and continuous information exchanged. The first conference was successful enough to warrant a second EU-Japan-US Conference on Critical Materials, held in March 2012 (The Second Trilateral EU-Japan-U.S. Conference on Critical Metals, 2012). International cooperation and overall research collaboration can help accelerate the development and improve alternate technologies to replace or reduce critical materials.

Funding of research is essential, especially when scarcity of resources is involved. After all, the goal of technologies that involve rare earth elements is to provide people around the world with goods and services that they demand, be they portable MP3s, or clean drinking water. Many countries have active research and development programs associated with critical materials sourcing, substitution, elimination or decreased usage in products and processes, recycling, consumption patterns, and processing, notably the US, EU, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, Malaysia, and China (Grueber, M., & Studt, T, 2011). China has established successful research and development ventures with Baotou research Institute of Rare Earths, established in 1963, two state laboratories: the State Key Laboratory of Rare Earth Materials Chemistry and Applications affiliated with Peking University and the State Key Laboratory of Rare Earth Resource Utilization, and The Chinese Society of Rare Earths, founded 1980, which produces The Journal of Rare Earth and China Rare Earth Information Journal (Hurst, 2010). The Academy of Sciences Malaysia and The National Professors' Council recently published Rare Earth Industries: Moving Malaysia's Green Economy Forward, which overviews strategies and recommendations for the beginnings of a Rare Earth industry in Malaysia (Moving Malaysia's green economy forward, 2011).

In fiscal year 2012, the United States federal government proposed to spend 12,066 million USD on general science and basic research, a 14.8% increase from the previous year (National Science Foundation, 2012). Energy took up a smaller part of the United States government's budget, but was also a sector increasing (relative to Medicare and veteran's benefits and services, which took the majority of the decreases).The Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E) of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded 31.6 million USD Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies for Energy (REACT) for fiscal year 2011 ("Department of Energy awards $156 million", 2011). The projects funded by REACT are developing cost-effective alternatives to REEs in electric vehicle motors and wind generators, thereby facilitating widespread implementation of electric vehicles and wind generators ("Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies", n.d.). In FY2010 ARPA-E awarded about half that amount, 15 million USD, for research on rare earths and substitutes in magnets (Grueber, M., & Studt, T, 2011). Internationally there is a push for research into alternatives to critical elements, especially rare earth elements.

Industry Initiatives

Some companies manufacturing products that use critical elements have invested in alternative technologies in order to prepare for a shortage of materials and gain advantage in the competitive market. One example is in the wind turbine industry. Originally, most wind turbines employed gearboxes attached to a doubly fed induction generator (DFIG). To maximize output in megawatts (MW), however, the size of the wind turbine, and therefore the gearbox, has to be increased. As the size of the gearbox increases, it becomes more vulnerable to mechanical problems and has to be repaired more often (Hatch, 2009a). In addition, as turbines become larger and larger to support the mass of the generator and the blades of the turbine,the amount of steel and other materials used to build the turbine and the costs for installation of the turbine increase (Hatch, 2009b). Since direct drive generators using Nd-Fe-B-Dy permanent magnets can generate a greater amount of MW for a smaller sized generator than that of the gearbox, a smaller turbine with a permanent magnet generator can produce as much as a larger turbine with a gearbox and at potentially a lower cost.Therefore, it isn't surprising that the amount of permanent magnet wind turbines is predicted to increase from 5-10% to 20-25% of annual installations over the next ten years. However, as a 3.5 MW direct drive wind turbine requires 756 kg of neodymium (Wilburn, 2011) and the demand for dysprosium is projected to increase by 2600% and that for neodymium is projected to increase by 700% over the next 25 years, a shortage in the supply of neodymium and, more importantly, dysprosium, may limit proliferation of permanent magnet wind turbines (Alonso et al., 2012).

As a result, despite the high efficiency of Nd-Fe-B-Dy direct drive permanent magnet generators, however, several companies have invested research into wind turbines that use alternatives to such generators. For instance, Boulder Wind has designed a 3.0 MW wind turbine that uses neodymium magnets that lack dysprosium ("Products and services", n.d.). As the demand for dysprosium is greater than that for neodymium, this alternative does address the more serious demand increase of dysprosium even though it still uses neodymium (Alonso et al., 2012). In addition, because the addition of dysprosium to the neodymium magnet weakens the magnet, removing dysprosium from the alloy also results in a more powerful magnet (Cramer, McCallum, Anderson, & Constantinides, 2012). TECO-Westinghouse Motor Company (TWMC) and the American Superconductor Corporation (AMSC) have been working since 2007 on another of the potential alternatives in the long term: high temperature superconductors (HTS) (American Superconductor, 2009). The advantage of HTS is that they exhibit zero resistance to electrical current and are therefore able to carry 100-150 times the current that a copper wire of the same size could carry. While permanent magnet generators are limited to 6-8 MW of output at their maximum possible size, HTS wind turbines, can generate 10 MW at maximum size (Hatch, 2009c). In addition, in 2009, the AMSC and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) entered in a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), which allows them to pool resources and expertise and speed up commercialization of HTS (American Superconductor, 2009). The one downside of HTS is that they use yttrium, which is deemed as "critical" in the short and medium term by the United States Department of Energy's 2011 report on Critical Materials Strategy, there may be limits to how much HTS can proliferate (Critical Materials Strategy, 2011). Supply changes in the the future and further innovations may still make HTS viable.

As shown by this example, worries about shortages in supply of neodymium and dysprosium are driving companies to take steps to research and implement different types of alternative technologies. However, as shown by the Department of Energy's agreement to collaborate with the AMSC on 10MW superconductor wind turbines, government incentives still play a role in encouraging R&D for alternative technologies.

Encouraging implementation of alternative technologies

In many cases, there are potential alternatives to critical metal-employing technologies. For instance induction motors are already used in several hybrids and electric vehicles, such as the Tesla Roadster, the Ford Ranger EV, and Tesla and Toyota's RAV4 EV. Unlike Nd-Fe-B-Dy magnet generators, induction motors use conductors made of aluminum or copper, which are more common materials. Other vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius, use a combination of neodymium magnet motors and induction motors, and therefore use less neodymium and dysprosium (McDonald, 2011).

If there are potential alternatives, what factors could preclude implementation of the alternatives? At the present day, some alternatives are not as efficient as or are more expensive than the technologies that they would replace.This is especially a problem in the clean energy industry, in which there is pressure to make green technologies cost competitive with those that use fossil fuels. For instance, even with rising prices of neodymium and dysprosium, a permanent magnet wind turbine still may be less expensive compared to that of a DFIG turbine because of the costs of constructing and transporting massive DFIG turbines needed to produce the same amount of output in MW (Hatch, 2009b). In the consumer electronics industry and military applications there is also pressure to have small, highly efficient products. Due to rising costs and limited supply, it will be necessary in some cases to use less efficient alternatives. A case-by-case cost benefit analysis is needed in order to determine in which cases using a less efficient model would be most viable, and in some cases government incentives might be needed to persuade companies to use less-efficient alternatives.

Implementation Details

R&D for and implementation of alternative technologies has been employed numerous times in the past to decrease demand for a critical element. Where the R&D is directed and the sufficiency of its funding, however, can have a massive impact on how successful alternative technologies are in decreasing demand for critical elements. The first part of this implementation will address how R&D must be directed in order to decrease demand for current critical elements while also decreasing the risk and impact of future critical element crises. The second part of the implementation will establish the roles in which governments must continue to support R&D and implementation of alternative technologies.

R&D With Demand in Mind

It is essential to identify which technologies are most at risk in order to determine where to direct incentives and research and development (R&D) for alternative technologies. The benefit of R&D must be optimized by directing such efforts toward technologies that are in high demand and those of which an essential component is in short or endangered supply. Attention must also be paid to technologies at risk of potential bottlenecks in the future. Although not all research projects will end in success, overall there must be an increase in alternative technologies and/or improvement in the efficiency of existing technologies.

Requirements for a good alternative (as compared to technology being replaced or improved):

  • low cost components
  • low cost of manufacturing
  • relatively abundant components
  • (if applicable) ensures technology operates at a high efficiency
  • (if applicable) temperature range in which technology operates does not significantly diminish performance

Examples of Current Technologies to Target for R&D

The technologies listed below are examples of technologies in which R&D and implementation of alternatives are most critical. As technological developments change the list of materials in demand and other circumstances affect supply, this list would change.

  • Nd-Fe-B-Dy Permanent Magnets (due to shortages in dysprosium and neodymium)
  • Rare Earth Phosphors (due to shortages in europium, terbium, and yttrium) (DiLouie, 2011).
  • Catalytic converters (due to shortages in platinum)

Multiple Alternatives

What happens if there is a bottleneck in the supply of a component of an alternative technology? Although the goal of alternative technologies is to use fewer critical elements, and, when possible, supplant critical elements with more common elements, there is always the chance that there will be supply chain bottlenecks due to unexpected circumstances decades into the future. For instance, neodymium permanent magnets were first used after a shortage in and rise in the price of cobalt due to political unrest in the Congo drove researchers in Japan and the United States to look for alternatives to the then most efficient samarium cobalt permanent magnets (Cramer et al., 2012). Although the Nd-Fe-B alloy was initially less efficient than samarium cobalt magnets, with a maximum energy product of 14 to 18 MGOe compared to samarium cobalt's maximum energy product of 16 to 32 MGOe, research and improved processing methods soon increased the efficiency of neodymium magnets to its present day range of 30 to 52 MGOe ("About samarium cobalt", n.d.; "Permanent magnet selection and design handbook", 2007; "Magnet materials", n.d.).
MGOe, which measures the maximum amount of work a magnet can generate, stands for mega-gauss oersteds, in which 1MGOe ? 7.96 kJ/ m3.The ranges in MGOe are in part due to the different grades of magnets of one type) (Cramer et al., 2012). At that time, rare earths were becoming more available as China began opening rare earth mines and selling rare earths at low prices (Cramer et al., 2012).

Therefore, with lower cost, larger availability, and higher efficiency neodymium magnets appeared to be an ideal alternative technology. Today, however, due to rising demand from high tech and green technology industries, neodymium magnets themselves are in short supply, and research and development aims to find alternatives to the once-perfect alternative. With this example in mind, it must be recognized that reliance upon one technology always will carry with it a risk of shortages. In order for the market to be flexible in the case of unexpected supply shortages, it is essential that multiple alternatives are pursued.

Different technologies serving similar purposes also have different advantages and disadvantages, potentially making some more suitable for some applications than others. Replacing technologies in specialized cases where one alternative is more efficient decreases overall demand for the desired critical element. For instance, it would be unlikely that enough samarium cobalt magnets could be produced to replace neodymium magnets. This is due to both the fact that the supply of samarium is less than that of neodymium (Cramer et al., 2012) and the current supply uncertainty of cobalt due to continued unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the largest producers of cobalt (Katanga Mining Limited, 2012). Although there are limited supplies of samarium and cobalt that preclude samarium cobalt magnets from fully replacing neodymium magnets, there are certain niches that samarium cobalt magnets can fill that would subsequently reduce overall demand for neodymium magnets. While samarium cobalt magnets have a lower MGOe than neodymium magnets, neodymium magnets only work at temperatures up to 200°C, while samarium cobalt magnets are efficient up to 350°C. In addition, samarium cobalt magnets are less vulnerable to corrosion, while neodymium magnets need a protective coating due to their vulnerability to corrosion ("About samarium cobalt", n.d.). As a result, samarium cobalt magnets can replace neodymium magnets in high temperature, acidic and alkaline, and other harsh conditions. Multiple alternatives can take up different specific applications and uses of technologies employing critical elements in order to decrease overall demand.

Not A Complete Replacement

If the supply chain of critical materials is uncertain, why not simply eliminate critical materials from new technologies? Critical materials have unique and specific uses that greatly expand innovative technological potential. There are certain instances where it is absolutely necessary to use critical materials, and instances where the use of critical materials greatly shortens the time necessary to convert an idea to a viable technology. If today's innovators cannot be certain that there will be a supply of critical materials in the future then they will not be as likely to take the risks necessary to design the next important technological advances; advances equivalent to the next tablet, wind turbine, jet engine, electric vehicle and the like. For example the use of dysprosium allows permanent magnets to maintain a strong magnetic field at higher temperatures. If an engineer made a new advance in jet engine technology, but needed dysprosium to make the technology viable, then that advance could be lost because companies are or will be uncertain that there will be a stable supply of dysprosium.

It is crucial that critical materials be used as efficiently as possible. If, for example, an innovation occurs such that the use of a critical material could be eliminated or reduced, like Boulder Wind Power's dysprosium-free wind turbine, then the critical materials that would have been used in that technology could be used in applications where they are absolutely necessary (Products and services, n.d.). Efficiently and effectively using critical materials is crucial. Continued research and development in alternative technologies will help meet that aim.

Government Funding and Support for Alternatives

As shown in the "Precedents" section, while R&D for alternative technologies can be in a company's best interest, governments have also played an essential role in encouraging companies to invest in R&D. In addition, governments themselves fund and support R&D and the implementation of alternative technologies, especially in cases in which the risk is higher. In order to ensure that sufficient amounts of alternative technologies are being developed in a timely manner, such government support must be continued. The role governments should play in supporting alternative technologies are as follows:


Costs for research and development are often challenging to predict and the benefits of R&D are often challenging to quantify. Bronwyn H. Hall in a UC Berkeley Department of Economics paper titled The Financing of Research and Development, claims that even if R&D receives appropriate returns through intellectual property protection, subsidies, and tax incentives it may still be difficult to finance R&D using capital from external sources (Hall, 2002). In other words R&D is easiest and most productive when executed within a large corporation, organisation, or company. Due to this challenge and fear, R&D is often underfunded (Hall, 2002). Governments can help reduce cost, and thereby spur R&D and innovation, by ensuring intellectual property is protected, subsidising research in scholastic institutions and some companies, and providing tax incentives. The bulk of investment in R&D however must come from companies themselves and must be as much as economically feasible. Since critical materials are an international issue, international cooperation is necessary on both a governmental scale and company scale.

To understand the costs of R&D for alternative technologies, a recent set of U.S. funding, REACT, can be studied. In funding year 2011, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy granted funding to 14 different projects in the Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies (REACT) program ("Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies", n.d.). The project includes the following funding: 1,661,463 USD to The Ames Laboratory for a project to create cerium-based permanent magnets, 1,698,093 USD to The Argonne National Lab to develop cost-effective exchange spring magnets, 2,051,004 USD to Baldor Electric to develop a REE-free traction motor, 1,131,594 USD to Brookhaven National Laboratory for improving superconducting wires for direct drive wind generators, 1,000,000 USD to Case Western Reserve University for iron-nitride alloy magnets, 397,433 USD to Dartmouth College for research in manganese-aluminum-based magnets, 1,618,345 USD to the Pacific Northwest National Lab to develop manganese-based magnets, 1,200,940 USD to QM Power for a high-torque electric vehicle motor with low REE content, 822,993 USD to University of Alabama for REE-free permanent magnet research, 2,057,676 USD to the University of Houston for low cost superconducting wire for wind generators, 1,701,027 USD to the University of Minnesota for iron-nitride magnets, and finally 2,138,225 USD to Virginia Commonwealth University for carbon-based magnets ("DOE ARPA-E awards $156M", 2011). Funding R&D has advantages other than creating new technologies, it also creates jobs, new technologies have positive impacts on the environment and on economic, market, and supply chain stability (REACT: Alternatives to critical materials in magnets, 2012). Current funding of R&D for alternatives needs to increase to keep up with the projected increases in demand so that there can be adequate alternative technology ready to implement when demand of critical materials far overreaches the supply.


Due to the uncertainty of R&D, it is difficult to determine exactly when alternative technologies will reach the market. However, what is known is that R&D projects and market testing can take years. For instance, the United States Department of Energy's National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) predicted that it may take 10-15 years for 10 MW HTS wind turbines to become available on the market (Hatch, 2009). Because of the temporal gap between when research begins and when an alternative reaches the market and can begin to make an impact, the sooner projects are sufficiently funded, the sooner there will be results.

Projected effects

As exact effects will vary from technology to technology depending on how many viable alternatives there are, and due to the uncertainty of when alternative technologies will be implemented, it is difficult to attach concrete numbers to the effects of researching and implementing alternative technologies. However, some predictions can be made based on trends associated with funding of R&D for alternative technologies in the past. Implementing alternative technologies will result in less demand for the critical elements in the original technology. This in turn will make the critical element more available for the applications where it cannot be so easily replaced. A diverse set of alternatives will ensure that supply of a certain technology will not be as drastically affected if a component of one technology suddenly experiences as shortage in supply. In the short term, implementation of alternative technologies may result in some less efficient and more expensive alternatives being implemented. If R&D is funded early and well enough, in the long term alternatives will be produced that will have increased efficiency and lowered costs compared to the original alternatives. In some cases, new alternatives may have greater efficiency and lower costs compared to the original technology.

Shortages can be impetus for innovation. If governments and industries create the proper conditions, alternatives can not only result in a decrease in supply shortages, but progress and better technology.

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