New Frontiers
NSF Funds Renewable Energy Materials Research Center at Mines with $9.3 Million

Colorado School of Mines has been awarded $9.3 million by the National Science Foundation to establish a new center that will focus on investigating emerging renewable energy materials and technologies. Mines’ award was part of a larger grant totaling $16.5 million, with the remaining $7.2 million going to the University of Colorado to expand work on its existing Liquid Crystals Research Center. The funds, which will be awarded over a six-year period, are from the NSF’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center program.

A ceremony was held at the Capitol marking this large award from the NSF. From left: Mines President Bill Scoggins; Tom Furtak, department head and professor of physics; Reuben Collins, professor of physics; Craig Taylor, professor of physics & MRSEC director; David Ginley, NREL; Andy Herring, associate professor of chemical engineering.

At an awards ceremony on September 22 at the State Capitol, Gov. Ritter said, “These grants will help us address the enormous energy challenges that face our state, our country and our planet.” The Mines team, to be led by physics professor Craig Taylor, will be the first NSF-funded research center dedicated solely to renewable energy. Working in close collaboration with NREL, the center will focus on three areas that Taylor describes as “the most important scientific and engineering problems in the renewable energy arena.”

The first problem concerns novel materials that have the potential to provide more efficient, less expensive photovoltaic devices. Much of the analysis will be conducted at the nanoscale, with experiments focusing on engineering particles that optimize the conversion of solar radiation into electrical current. Computational simulation and characterization will support experimental approaches in the lab.

The center will also investigate novel membranes that could lower the cost and increase the lifetime of devices such as fuel cells. Advancements in fuel cell membranes could facilitate both the production of hydrogen as a fuel and the production of electricity using hydrogen as a fuel. Currently, membranes are a weak link in these technologies. One strategy will involve combining materials with dramatically different transport characteristics.

The third area of research concerns solids whose crystalline structures contain large open cages capable of storing concentrated quantities of gas molecules—such as hydrogen and methane. Two materials that fall into this class include clathrate hydrates, essentially composed of water molecules, and a special form of silicon that is non-toxic and potentially abundant.

The center will also conduct educational and outreach activities aimed at exposing students to renewable energy concepts at a young age. These efforts will include expanding an existing K-12 outreach program to include components that teach renewable energy concepts; developing a summer program that provides undergraduates with research experience in renewable energy technologies; and creating a renewable energy elective course sequence for graduate students.

In addition to the close collaboration with NREL, it is expected that more than a dozen private companies actively involved in alternative energy technologies will partner with the center. In addition, scientists at Mines plan to work in parallel with scientists at the University of New South Wales, and Imperial College, University of London.

The $9.3 million will be distributed over six years. The Colorado Higher Education Competitive Research Authority played a key role in securing this grant by providing the state matching funds required to compete for this major federal grant. With the state’s match and support from Colorado School of Mines, the center’s annual budget will be well over $2 million per year. Other institutions that received similar NSF grants this year include Harvard, Princeton and MIT.

Critical Minerals and the U.S. Economy

In 1924, indium was a scientific curiosity and merely a single isolated gram of it had been collected worldwide. Eighty-four years later, with the skyrocketing popularity of flat screens and the pending promise of its photovoltaic applications, indium ranks among the economy’s most critical minerals, according to a report entitled Minerals, Critical Minerals, and the U.S. Economy sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and underwritten by the Department of the Interior.

Reclaimed mainly from zinc ores and concentrates, the USGS reports global indium production was 510 metric tons last year, and prices spiked as high as $980 per kilogram the year before, when production was actually higher. Indium tin oxide, used for thin-film coatings on flat panel screens, consumes more than half of the world’s indium production. A decade-long demand spike, coupled with potential supply restrictions, landed indium with a designation of critical in the report, which was generated by a committee of academic, industry and government representatives chaired by Rod Eggert, professor and director of the Division of Economics and Business at Mines.

The report suggests a framework for assessing whether meeting anticipated industrial demand for a given mineral is under threat. To illustrate their recommendations, they only selected a handful of minerals from the estimated 25,000 pounds per person, per year of new minerals associated with supporting our modern way of life in the United States.

“What the committee tried to do is clarify and sort through the various issues that often get jumbled together and confused when it comes to critical minerals and the economy,” said Eggert. Eleven minerals were chosen to illustrate the committee’s method. Numerous factors were considered, including a mineral’s concentration in small areas, single-country production, byproduct production and the likelihood for rapid increases in demand.

Indium, Eggert explains, provided an example of high demand and limited sourcing. Upping the ante, the next generation of photovoltaic cells might use the rare, silvery-white metal. “If it takes off, it could represent a level of demand that is comparable to flat panels,” Eggert said. Further complicating the picture, indium is obtained as a byproduct of zinc mining and processing. “What’s available for recovery is determined largely by the price of zinc…whether it’s worth recovering is determined largely by the price of indium,” Eggert says.

Exemplified by case studies like indium, the critical minerals report recommends the federal government invest in collecting information about the entire life cycle of a mineral, from undeveloped geologic information, to potentially recoverable elements and minerals from products at the end of their lifecycle. “That includes assessing to
what degree we might use municipal waste dumps as the mines of the future," Eggert says.

It’s basic research, and “a public good that is likely to be underprovided by the market itself,” Eggert says. “We propose a framework or a method for assessing a mineral’s degree of criticality. We suggest a role for the federal government in that evaluation.”