WSU to study rare earth elements in Everett

They’re essential to all electronics.

Europium. Promethium. Scandium. And others.

The second to last rung on the Periodic Table is devoted to the so-called “rare earth elements,” metals that are used in everything from cell phones to wind turbines.

Because these minerals are vital to consumer electronics, as well as defense and green techology, they’re a big deal.

“Rare earths impact everyone,” said Chris Keane, Washington State University’s vice president of research. “If you have a cell phone, you’re impacted; if you have a computer, you’re impacted.

“One of the reasons the colors are so bright on your screen is because of rare earths — Europium in particular.”

Right now, China controls 90 percent of rare earth production in the world.

That may change and WSU in Everett may be part of the reason.

WSU North Puget Sound at Everett will soon become the home to a new institute looking to develop alternatives to rare earth elements and recycle the elements out of existing products.

It’s the first research program for the emerging campus.

The Joint Center for Deployment and Research in Earth Abundant Materials (JCDREAM) was established by legislation sponsored by Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on July 6.

Smith cited issues of environmental sustainability, national security and supply chain stability for the creation of the center.

Rare earth elements earned their name because they were originally hard to find, Keane said.

“It turns out they’re just clustered in the earth in various spots,” he added.

The majority of those clusters are in China.

Rep. Smith added the United States Geological Survey found that Afghanistan is a mineral-rich nation.

She said that more than 70 percent of titanium — not a rare earth element, but a difficult-to-source element used to create lightweight and more fuel-efficient transportation technologies — comes from Ukraine and Russia. Tensions in those countries have threatened the supply chain of rare earth minerals.

Mining for these elements is a highly toxic, resource intensive process. A lot of chemicals are used to break down the raw material and extract a small amount of rare earths, Keane said.

Those environmental concerns led Smith to develop the legislation.

“For us to say we want to deploy next-generation technology and yet do so in a way that exports the environmental harm of improper mineral extraction to other nations is not an acceptable strategy,” Smith said.

In addition to finding possible substitutes to rare earth elements, the center will also look at expanding the recycling of those elements. Currently, less than 1 percent of rare earths are recaptured from used consumer electronics.

The legislation also establishes a partnership between the state’s research institutions: WSU, the University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“When you put your best researchers form WSU, UW and PNNL together, you’re going to get some very exciting results,” Smith said.

The partnership will bring together a broad basis of knowledge in subjects like materials science, materials engineering and chemistry, said Christian Mailhoit, a WSU materials science professor, who testified to the Legislature in support of Smith’s bill.

“You really need to understand these phenomenon at the fundamental level in order to translate that knowledge into things like recycling, manufacturing and substitution,” Mailhoit said.

Having that basis of fundamental science will lead to development and deployment of new technologies.

“It’s really important to have that deployment aspect to it so you can fully realize the benefit of research,” Mailhoit said. “I think it will be very beneficial to the state in particular and the country in general.”

The legislation establishes a board of directors for the institute; members will include representatives of WSU, the University of Washington, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, community colleges and related industries. Having the community colleges and industries on board ensures that institute will help prepare a work force that can build what the institute develops. Smith said that was a critical component to the center.

Establishing the center at the North Puget Sound branch is part of a larger WSU initiative to expand the school’s offerings at that site, said Chris Mulick, WSU’s director of state relations.

“To date, our activity has really been around bring new academic programs to the area, but this would be something different,” Mulick said. “It makes a lot of sense, and looking down the road, it makes a lot of sense for that economy as well.”

Materials science research is important to aerospace manufacturers, Keane said. The center essentially establishes a materials science program in Everett.

“There’s a lot of industries in Everett interested in materials science research,” Keane said.

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