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

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.