Karl Gschneider, chief scientist at Ames Laboratory's Critical Materials Institute, has been tinkering with metals for more than 50 years. He received his Ph.D. from Iowa State University, where Ames is located, in 1957 and is still hard at work.
In fact, not even a federal government shutdown—Ames Lab and the Critical Materials Institute are part of the Department of Energy—has slowed down Gschneider and his colleagues.
The Critical Materials Institute is one of the "lucky ones," in that, though it didn't begin operating until June, it received its funding in 2012.
"Funding came in early and is in the bank, here in town. A whole year of funding in advance and in the bank, you can spend," Gschneider said.
The challenge the institute was created to solve is even more complicated than a government shutdown: finding solutions to the biggest constraints in the market for rare earth metals.
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Not all rare earth metals shortages are created equal. In fact, the term "rare earth" can be misleading. Many such metals are abundant, but those aren't the ones used in industrial applications, primarily in magnets across a number of sectors. For example, cerium is the most abundant rare earth metal—U.S. miner Molycorp finds plenty of it—but its market is limited.
Bill McCallum, a colleague of Gschneider's at the Critical Materials Institute, said rare earths are essential to things we take for granted in everyday life—from hard drives to iPod earbuds and flat- screen TVs. But a hard drive has on average two grams of magnets, while a Toyota Prius has two kilograms of magnets and a wind turbine has on order of one metric ton per megawatt.
"We would have been fine except we decided we wanted Priuses and wind turbines, and each of those has project demand for as many rare earth magnets as all the other products combined," McCallum said.