CMI Success Stories

Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Momentum Technologies sign licensing agreement November 17, 2016front row: Preston Bryant, Chief Executive Officer, Momentum Technologies, LLC, and Thomas Zacharia, Deputy for Science and Technology, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Back row: Julia Kelley, CMI team at ORNL, Bruce Moyer, CMI team at ORNL, and Tim McIntyre, inventor and CMI team at ORNL, Dr. Robert Miles, Momentum Technologies, Nestor Franco, Commercialization Manager ORNL Partnerships Office, Alan Liby, ORNL Advanced Manufacturing Program Manager, and Jim Roberto, ORNL Associate Laboratory Director for Science and Technology Partnerships.

signing ceremony for first license of CMI technology


Update: The license agreement was announced in August, and the official signing at Oak Ridge National Laboratory was November 19, 2015. Shown, front row: Kevin M. Cassidy, president and CEO of U.S. Rare Earths, and Dr. Thom Mason, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Back row: Nestor Franco, ORNL Tech Transfer; Preston Bryant, U.S. Rare Earths; Dr. Ramesh Bhave, ORNL; and Dr. Daejin Kim, ORNL.

collage image for first license -- CMI logo, diagram

First License for CMI Invention

A new technology developed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute that aids in the recycling, recovery and extraction of rare earth minerals has been licensed to U.S. Rare Earths, Inc.

The membrane solvent extraction system, invented by CMI partners Oak Ridge and Idaho national laboratories, is the first commercially licensed technology developed through the CMI.

Established in 2013 as an Energy Innovation Hub, CMI explores ways to assure supply chains of materials critical to clean energy technologies such as wind turbines, electric vehicles, efficient lighting and advanced batteries. CMI Director Alex King credits a close collaboration with industry as key to making technology transfer happen well ahead of traditional time frames.

"Going from an idea to a licensed technology in just two years is exactly what CMI is intended to do, and we've proven we can do it," King said.

The recycling of critical materials from electronic waste has been limited by processing technologies that are inefficient, costly and environmentally hazardous. ORNL’s Ramesh Bhave, who led the membrane solvent extraction research and development, says the team’s new simplified process eliminates many of these barriers.

“Our single-step process to recover rare-earth elements from scrap magnets is more environmentally friendly and has the potential to be a more cost-effective approach compared to conventional routes such as precipitation,” Bhave said.

See complete story in news release about license from Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Other links: CMI Invention Disclosures

Media about this invention:

Graphic for CMI feature story from The Ames Laboratory

The critical second: CMI’s second year doubles research milestones

Two years ago the Critical Materials Institute launched as a diverse group of researchers committed to an ambitious idea: that bringing together the best scientific minds from national labs, universities, and industry could move research on rare-earth metals quickly through its paces and on to marketable technologies, shortening development time by years if not decades.

It was a challenge posed by the U.S. Department of Energy, which established CMI as an Energy Innovation Hub to address the very real possibility of shortages in rare-earth and other materials necessary for clean energy technologies like wind turbines, electric vehicles, efficient lighting, advanced batteries, and other products used by Americans every day.

Led by the Ames Laboratory and combining an expanding partnership program with precise research mapping, CMI has more than doubled its research accomplishments in its second year, bringing the total number of invention disclosures to 34. This week CMI heads into its annual research planning meeting for the upcoming third year, hosted this year at partner research facility Idaho National Laboratory.

“Are we in the right place on progress? I think so,” said CMI Director Alex King. “In order to prepare for and respond to materials crises in the future, we need to be able to develop solutions on this time scale reliably and repeatedly, and we’ve demonstrated that it can be done.”

According to Ames Laboratory Associate Director and CMI’s commercialization administrator Deb Covey, the Hub is well positioned for the next steps toward successful technology transfer, with nine patent applications and a commercial licensing agreement, and more in the works.

 “We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of patent disclosures in the first two years, and I expect we’ll see further momentum toward commercializing these technologies in our third year.” Covey said.

Covey and other CMI leadership credit the industry partnership and membership program— one that is unique among Department of Energy organizations— for the speed at which CMI is gaining on inventions and tech transfer.

“We wanted to facilitate communication among national laboratories, academic institutions, and companies, because often R&D groups don’t talk to groups at other types of organization; they work independently most of the time,” said Rod Eggert, Deputy Director of CMI and a professor at the Colorado School of Mines.

King, Eggert, and Covey consider that communication essential to the success of CMI, both in shortening the typical lead time to new materials and technologies from over a decade to just a few years, and in closing what has often been seen as a perennial and stubborn gap between basic and applied sciences.

“Often new ideas coming out of basic research end up getting stuck in the mud along the way to commercialization, because basic and applied researchers didn’t talk to one another sufficiently. We like to think we changed that dynamic with this organization,” said Eggert.

“Working with our industry partners at every step of the research planning, we’re able to consistently focus on the economic and manufacturing feasibility of the technology we’re developing. It is a better model for successfully deploying them commercially,” said Covey.

CMI has remained focused on its five-year scientific mission to diversify supplies, develop substitutes, and increase reuse of existing rare-earth and other critical materials, despite a rare-earth metals economy that has seen upheavals since the beginning of the organization’s existence, including both steep increases and steep declines in market values.

But that is something, CMI experts say, they were prepared to see.

“The market environment is very turbulent for metals that have specialized applications, and rare earths are certainly in that category,” said Eggert, who heads up CMI’s economic and supply chain analysis related to its scientific mission.  “They’re more fragile in the sense that for any number of reasons—a limited number of producers, a limited number of end users, the loss of an existing use or the development of a new use— demand or supply can be dramatically influenced in a very short period of time.”

King said CMI was focused instead on the near distant future.

“We’re tasked with keeping an eye on what we expect supply and demand to look like in the 10- to 20-year time frame,” said King. “That means you have to smooth out or ignore a lot of bumps in the market.  At CMI we think that even if prices are down today and supply and demand seem in balance, we could very easily be in a shortage situation in a few years.”

That’s in keeping with CMI’s scientific-eye view of the growing and varied uses of rare-earth metals not just in the United States, but globally. As the world’s use of specialized magnets in various technologies grows, the need for rare-earth metals to manufacture them will also expand.

“It is not at all clear whether there is a robust enough supply chain to sustain this growth,” said King. “What the world really needs is a diverse supply chain, good alternative materials, and good recycling methods. And that is exactly what CMI is working on.”

First anniversary gift for Critical Material Institute? Inventions. Eleven of them.

The Critical Materials Institute (CMI), an Energy Innovation Hub for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), celebrated its first anniversary with eleven invention disclosures, all research milestones in a mission to assure the availability of rare earths and other materials critical to clean energy technologies.

The inventions include improved extractive processes, recycling techniques, and substitute materials—technologies designed to increase production and efficiency of, and reduce reliance on, the use of rare earths and other critical materials.

The invention disclosures were a result of a solid year of scientific work that coordinated the efforts of 250 researchers across 18 institutions, created several unique facilities, and established an industrial affiliates program to engage the manufacturing sector.

Image“Starting up an organization of this size is an accomplishment by itself,” said Alex King, director of the Critical Materials Institute. “Establishing experimental tools like a custom-modified 3D printer (at right) for testing new magnet materials and a new chemical pilot plant for testing new extractive processes takes a lot of time and effort. We’ve gone beyond that to create a whole set of new discoveries in record time.  That reflects some impressive teamwork by our researchers and their support staff.”

The institute even won a nod from the White House as it celebrated the third anniversary of the Materials Genome Initiative (

CMI was launched in 2013 with a budget of up to $120M over five years as one of DOE’s Energy Innovation Hubs, which are major integrated research centers designed to accelerate scientific discovery in critical areas. Led by the Ames Laboratory, the CMI’s goal is to address shortages of materials critical to clean energy technologies like wind turbines, electric vehicles, efficient lighting, advanced batteries, and other products used by Americans every day.

Reviewing CMI’s first year, DOE officials praised the institute’s organizational structure, its collaboration of experts in the field, and its progress in research and development.

“The DOE seems to be pretty happy with our progress so far,” said King. “The list of inventions is getting a lot of positive attention in Washington, which is gratifying.”

CMI launched its second year July 1, and will host its annual meeting Sept. 9. It is also establishing new research collaborations with other countries to accelerate the achievement of its goals, and will host the Trilateral Critical Materials Working Group, a collaboration of the European Union, Japan, and the United States, in September.

“We’ve made a great start, but the real payoff will happen when corporations start using our inventions to help in the manufacture of clean energy technologies,” King said. “We are spending increasing amounts of time talking with manufacturers and their suppliers to find out how we can help them to solve their critical materials problems, and I am confident that there will be some commercialization of our work very soon.  Given that it usually takes about 20 years to commercialize new materials technologies, we are going to be setting some records with CMI.”

The Critical Materials Institute is a Department of Energy Innovation Hub led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory. CMI seeks ways to eliminate and reduce reliance on rare-earth metals and other materials critical to the success of clean energy technologies.

Ames Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science national laboratory operated by Iowa State University. Ames Laboratory creates innovative materials, technologies and energy solutions. We use our expertise, unique capabilities and interdisciplinary collaborations to solve global problems.

CMI research team at a light manufacturing facility

Critical Materials Institute uses the Materials Genome approach to accelerate rare-earth replacement

The Critical Materials Institute, led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Ames Laboratory, has invented two new phosphors in one year of research, demonstrating the power of the Materials Genome Initiative method in a collaborative public-private approach to innovation.

The phosphors are substitutes for materials based on increasingly expensive rare-earth elements. In high-efficiency lighting, europium produces the red component, and terbium produces the green component of the red-green-blue light emitters that are used in almost all modern technologies. They include fluorescent tubes, compact fluorescent bulbs, LEDs and flat panel displays; but the world’s supply of these critical elements is not keeping up with the demand.

When the market price of rare earth elements like europium and terbium went through the roof in 2011, the hunt was on for materials that could replace their essential functions in efficient lighting technologies.

But there is a catch: it typically takes about twenty years to develop and deploy replacement materials. Working closely together in the Critical Materials Institute, theorists, experimentalists and production engineers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the GE Global Research Center are linking advanced theory, computation, accelerated testing, and expert knowledge to shorten the development cycle.  Within the first year of work, they have already invented one new green phosphor and one new red phosphor that have the potential to reduce demand for rare-earth elements by a very large factor.  Testing and qualification work is now under way to get these new materials into production.

The Materials Genome Initiative creates tools and methods that help in avoiding blind alleys in the research program,” said Alex King, director of the Critical Materials Institute. “We would be nowhere near as far along as we are without this integration of efforts and expertise.”

The Critical Materials Institute, one of the Energy Department’s Energy Innovation Hubs, with federal funding of up to $120 million over five years, is a collaboration of leading researchers from universities, four DOE national laboratories, and members of industry. Energy Innovation Hubs are major integrated research centers with researchers from many different institutions and technical backgrounds, combining basic and applied research with engineering to accelerate scientific discovery in critical energy areas.

3-D Printer Speeds Metals Research

Ryan Ott, principal investigator at the Ames Laboratory and the CMI, is using 3D printing technology to discover new materials. He uses the printer to produce a large variety of alloys in less time than needed in traditional casting methods.

The Critical Materials Institute has a new 3D printer for metals research.

“Metal 3D printers are slowly becoming more commonplace,” Ott said. “They can be costly, and are often limited to small-scale additive manufacturing in industry. But for us, this equipment has the potential to become a very powerful research tool. We can rapidly synthesize large libraries of materials. It opens up a lot of new possibilities.”

The CMI printer, a LENS MR-7 manufactured by Optomec of Albuquerque, N.M., uses models from computer-aided design software to build layers of metal alloy on a substrate via metal powders that are melted by a laser. Four chambers supply metal powders to the deposition head that can be programmed to produce a nearly infinite variety of alloy compositions. The printing occurs in an ultra-low oxygen glove box to protect the quality of highly reactive materials. In a recent demonstration run, the printer produced a one-inch long, 0.25-inch diameter rod of stainless steel in 20 seconds.

Combined with computational work, experimental techniques, and a partnership with the Stanford Synchrotron Light Source (SSRL) for X-ray characterization, scientists at the CMI will be able to speed the search for alternatives to rare-earth and other critical metals.  “Now we have the potential to screen through a lot of material libraries very quickly, looking for the properties that best suit particular needs,” Ott said.

Ott's research is one of 35 projects within the Critical Materials Institute, a U.S. Department of Energy Innovation Hub led by The Ames Laboratory. CMI seeks ways to eliminate and reduce reliance on rare-earth metals and other materials critical to the success of clean energy technologies. DOE’s Energy Innovation Hubs are integrated research centers that bring together scientists and engineers from many different institutions and technical backgrounds to accelerate scientific discovery in areas vital to U.S. energy security.