In this week’s episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with Helena Khazdozian, a senior technology manager at the US Department of Energy and program manager for the agency’s Critical Materials Institute. Khazdozian and Hayes discuss why the materials that the institute prioritizes are important to future decarbonization efforts. They also talk about supply chains, research efforts, and breakthroughs happening more broadly with other teams throughout the Department of Energy.
Listen to the Podcast
- Critical materials pose unique challenges for supply chains: “For critical materials, there are a lot of challenges in the supply chains … The potential for supply disruption is definitely an aspect, but the challenges are a lot bigger than, Do we have enough supply to meet the demand? Do we have the capabilities to process the materials? Do we have the workforce? Each material’s supply chain really has its own unique challenges.” (10:27)
- Rare earth elements aren’t actually rare—it’s just that separating them is difficult: “Because rare elements are found together in ore … you need to separate those out from each other so that you can refine those materials and incorporate them in the magnet itself … What’s challenging about separating rare earth elements from each other is that, because they’re all next to each other on the periodic table, they’re very chemically similar.” (15:44)
- Reducing negative impacts on the environment doesn’t have to be costly: “People think, ‘If it’s more environmentally friendly, it must be more costly.’ But that’s not always the case. A lot of times, the drivers to reduce costs also reduce environmental impact.” (23:50)
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Kristin Hayes.
My guest today is Dr. Helena Khazdozian, senior technology manager at the US Department of Energy (DOE) and program manager for the department's Critical Materials Institute, or CMI. Dr. Khazdozian earned her PhD from Iowa State University in wind energy science, engineering, and policy, and co-focused her graduate studies on electrical engineering. Helena is joining me today to introduce our listeners to the CMI in more depth, and also to help set the stage for why the materials that CMI focuses on are indeed so critical for future decarbonization efforts. We'll talk about supply chains, research efforts, and new breakthroughs happening throughout the DOE ecosystem. Stay with us.
Helena, welcome to Resources Radio. It's nice to meet you, and I'm really grateful that you were able to come on the show.
Helena Khazdozian: Thanks so much for inviting me, Kristin.
Kristin Hayes: Many of our guests here on Resources Radio are social scientists, so it's always a bit of a treat to have a physical scientist join us. Can you share just a little bit about your educational background, your research background, and how you ended up at CMI?
Helena Khazdozian: Absolutely. I have a bit of a checkered background, but my graduate work was in electrical engineering with a focus on wind. But my research background—I have about eight years experience on clean energy technology research, including building energy efficiency, thin-film solar fabrication, and wind turbine generator design. The last part of my research was at the Ames Laboratory. That was actually part of the CMI, and I was modeling magnetic materials and electric machines. These include things like wind turbine generators.
In general, those efforts were meant to guide some of the materials' discovery work: actually providing performance; what it looked like in an end-use application. But I was always interested in the intersection of science, engineering, and policy. And so I pursued an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship at the Department of Energy.
During that time, I was supporting the Advanced Manufacturing Office at the Department of Energy in their critical materials portfolio, and then I joined as a federal employee in 2019, when I became the technology manager for Critical Materials—managing CMI, now, on the other side of the funding agency.
Kristin Hayes: Sounds great. I'm not sure how many of our listeners know of the AAAS, which is the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Their fellowship program is a wonderful pipeline that connects the science community with the policymaking community here in DC. A wonderful cross section of the research world comes out of that AAAS fellowship program.
That's awesome. So you have been with DOE for a couple years now, and I wanted to set the stage about the Critical Materials Institute and its role within the Department of Energy. Can you talk our listeners through the structure of the Institute and the mandate of the Institute?
Helena Khazdozian: The Critical Materials Institute, or I'll say CMI, is part of the Advanced Manufacturing Office’s broader portfolio of research development and demonstration. These projects really look to adjust high impact opportunities and challenges across the entire life cycle of clean energy technologies that use critical materials.
So CMI, even though “institute” is in the name, is actually an energy innovation hub. These hubs are modeled after the Manhattan Project and really look to serve a use of the nation. CMI is actually led by one of DOE's National Laboratories, Ames laboratory. It was established in 2013; it's really our flagship program for critical materials at DOE. But it's not just a single lab. It's a public-private consortium. It brings together members for national labs, universities, and industry members, and is part of a broader innovation ecosystem.
The purpose of CMI is to accelerate innovative, scientific, and technological solutions; to develop resilient and secure supply chains for various elements and other materials that are critical for clean energy technology. Their mandate, really, is to support clean energy technology specifically.
The way they do that is through four focused areas for research. These are diversifying supply of the materials; looking at developing substitutes for those materials to reduce our reliance when we can; driving reuse and recycling of those materials; and then those are all supported by cross-cutting research.
Those activities are broad-ranging. Things like generating thermodynamic data for new alloys that they've developed, or doing techno-economic analysis or lifecycle assessment of the technologies, and even looking at the impacts of CMI technologies on the environment so that we don't create a new challenge in the process of trying to address current challenges.
Kristin Hayes: What actually makes a material critical by CMI's definition? Certainly, this connection to clean energy technologies, but maybe we can get more specific about the critical materials that are within CMI scope. I'll be the first to admit to our listeners that I've already slipped up several times in my correspondence with you and referred to CMI as the “Critical Minerals Institute” instead of the Critical Materials Institute. But I think that's actually an important distinction, that you are considering more than just critical minerals—is that right? Maybe you can just lay that out for us a bit.
Helena Khazdozian: It's really common to use critical “minerals” and “materials” interchangeably, but there is a little nuance of the definitions, at least within the US federal government. For DOE, we assess critical materials based on two factors: the potential for supply disruption, and then their importance to energy. That energy lens is what differentiates a critical material from the broader critical minerals list that's developed by the US Geological Survey.
We do think about the broader list as well, but CMI's lens is even more specific because they're focused on that mandate of supporting clean energy technologies. In practice, this looks like the rare earth elements for magnets, some of the battery-critical materials, and then a couple materials like indium or gallium that are used in some of the semiconductor technologies like photovoltaics, for instance.
Kristin Hayes: It's helpful to have those specific examples, too, of where these critical materials actually come into play in these technologies. Are there any other examples you can provide of how they specifically feed into the technologies that might be more familiar to the consumer? EV batteries, photovoltaics, wind turbines—are they pretty ubiquitous in that body of technology?
Helena Khazdozian: Critical materials, actually, are in a lot of ways like building blocks for clean technologies, and a lot of times, they're difficult to substitute out. Or if you do use a different material or a different technology, you actually reduce the overall efficiency of the system.
So, various elements I mentioned—if you remember back to your chemistry days in high school—it's the last two at the bottom of the periodic table. Those two rows that no one ever looks at. They're included there. But, particularly, neodymium, dysprosium. These are two of the rare elements that we think about a lot for critical materials at DOE, and they're used in magnets. These magnets play a role in the conversion of energy and electric vehicle motors and offshore wind turbine generators.
But they're ubiquitous in our society. There are magnets in your headphones and your cell phones and the hard drives in your computers. They are an important technology and common in consumer electronics as well. Batteries are a great example. Lithium-ion batteries in particular—lithium is an example of a critical material. And that lithium enables the flow of electrons in two directions. That's why you can recharge your battery rather than having to throw it away at the end of its lifetime. And it's also the lightest element on the periodic table. So you can design compact batteries that way.
There're a couple other materials that are considered critical in batteries. Cobalt is an example. Cobalt provides thermal stability and also high energy density in batteries, but there's a shift to remove or reduce the amount of cobalt in batteries. So they're shifting to higher concentrations of nickel, which is also sometimes critical, especially if it's very high purity. It's a trade-off, right? All these things are a trade-off.
Kristin Hayes: And the question about the definition of critical: you mentioned that it's not only important for these clean energy technologies, but the other piece of this, if I understood you correctly, is really about supply chain reliability, and “Can we get these materials?” Is that right?
Helena Khazdozian: That's right.
Kristin Hayes: I feel like that question about supply chain reliability obviously has been on the minds of folks at CMI for a long time. But I would say over the past few years, most of us who previously had been blissfully insulated from that have also been thinking a lot about supply chains. That's just a term that has become much more resonant in the broad conversation. So I'd love to talk about supply chain in more detail, too.
And maybe I can ask about the contours of today's supply chains for these critical materials. What makes them complex? Are they sputtering these days, like other supply chains that we keep hearing about?
Helena Khazdozian: For critical materials, there are a lot of challenges in the supply chains. And one thing I'll mention: the potential for supply disruption is definitely an aspect, but the challenges are a lot bigger than, Do we have enough supply to meet the demand? Do we have the capabilities to process the materials? Do we have the workforce? Each material’s supply chain really has its own unique challenges.
The Department of Energy recently published a strategy to secure the supply chain for a robust, clean energy transition. We had 13 deep-dive reports that dig into those challenges and opportunities—some of them for our materials, like neodymium magnets. These are the various magnets I have been talking about, but others were the technology focus like wind and solar.
The supply chain is bigger than the material input into the system. We look at those different aspects, but we really think these are challenges—but we like to think of them really about as opportunities at the Department of Energy. We work with other federal agencies and departments to drive solutions to these challenges and turn them into opportunities.
And our role in DOE is to advance research, right? So the Critical Materials Institute in particular has created this unique innovation ecosystem to drive those solutions. That ecosystem has served as a foundation for the Advanced Manufacturing Office’s critical materials portfolio, to really integrate our work with other folks in the Department of Energy.
And, in particular, manufacturing. It's a major economic driver and a job creator. We focus on multiple aspects of supply chain, but I think that's a unique role that we play in the Department of Energy.
Kristin Hayes: Very interesting. What are the job skills? Can you say a little bit more about the job skills that are that critical component of the supply chain that you mentioned? What do people need to know to be able to successfully contribute in that way to the broader supply chain for these critical materials?
Helena Khazdozian: Right now, it's all about interdisciplinary teams. I don't think I can succinctly say all the different aspects that a supply-chain workforce needs, but at least in manufacturing, we're moving to internet of things–type solutions. There's more automation. There's more machine learning and artificial intelligence driving the data needed to make these processes smarter.
And then there's also the need for both technical workforce trade skills as well as—batteries is a good example. You're not looking necessarily for a single-discipline training that you might have in the past. You need an electrochemical engineer rather than just an electrical engineer, a chemical engineer. Where disciplines intersect is where the interesting things are happening.
When I talk to industry about this, it's a lot of the soft skills. I hate to use that term, but quote unquote “soft skills.” Can you work on a diverse team? I spend a lot of my time as a researcher now at the Department of Energy translating English to English. Can you work with the economist and engineer and bring them together? Those are my personal anecdotes of what I think is necessary.
Kristin Hayes: Super interesting. That's something we hear regularly: the value of that interdisciplinary research, but also the interdisciplinary translation abilities. So that makes a lot of sense.
I want to go back to something you said earlier, when you were describing CMI's mandate and areas of focus. And you mentioned there were four types of investigation that you focus on: research on diversifying supply, research on developing substitutes. And you mentioned as well that some of these things are hard to substitute for. I'd love to talk about that in more detail, but there's a third effort on driving reuse and recycling, and then the cross-cutting efforts that bring everything together.
I wanted to just delve a little bit into each of those in turn. And maybe we can start by chatting about a success story that I know was announced in late May of this year, which focused on efforts to diversify supply for a range of rare earth metals using improved separation techniques. I will say the press release for this got pretty weedy into some of the mechanics of separation. This might be something new for our audience, but it'd be great to hear more about—and as much as you can explain for the layman—what breakthrough you had there.
Helena Khazdozian: That particular success story is about separation. When we look at the supply chain for rare earth magnets, there's the first step of mining from raw, virgin materials, or also extraction from other conventional or secondary sources. Then you need to concentrate those materials out from the ore, or whatever source that you're using. And because rare elements are found together in ore—it's not just neodymium; most of the rare earth will be found all together—you need to separate those out from each other so that you can refine those materials and incorporate them in the magnet itself. This success story really focuses on that separation aspect. What's challenging about separating rare earth elements from each other is that, because they're all next to each other on the periodic table, they're very chemically similar.
It is quite difficult to do that efficiently. We call this the midstream of the supply chain, where we focus on that separation or refining of the materials.
Harking back to the question you had on what's difficult about critical material supply chains, that's often the challenge. We don't have that midstream capability to refine the materials because you need a customer who is extracting materials. And you also need suppliers for manufacturers, right? The wind turbine manufacturers need the magnets. So this particular technology that was developed by CMI really increased the efficiency of separating out elements from each other, and then they can be used to be refined further and manufactured in magnets.
Kristin Hayes: What about some examples on the other areas of research, either on developing substitutes or driving reuse and recycling? I really appreciated your comment that you don't want to be creating other problems in efforts to solve one problem. I'm assuming that this idea of waste and keeping an eye on what waste is being generated even as these materials are being created is definitely on the minds of folks at DOE. So I'd welcome any examples on those streams of work too.
Helena Khazdozian: I could talk about this all day, but I'll try to be succinct. CMI has a lot of work in substitution. They're mostly focused on substitution for rare earth magnets. They're looking at several compositions for what we call “gap” magnets. There's an opportunity to displace some of the demand for rare earth magnets or reduce the overall demand by looking at gap magnets.
There're only actually four types of commercial magnets available, and there's a really big difference in the strength of those magnets. There's two that are lower in strength. They don't use very many critical materials. And then there's these high-strength magnets that use rare earth elements. In between, there's a big difference in those strengths.
If your needs fall in that gap area, you have to use this really high strength rare earth magnet even though you might not need that much strength, right? So they have a couple different compositions that they are developing to meet that gap area. Again, just displacing some of the demand for the rare earth magnets.
One of the compositions in particular is cerium-cobalt based. What's interesting about using cerium is it's a rare earth element, but it's produced in surplus, generally, because there's not a lot of demand for it. The idea is that if you could actually find a market for this, you could increase the overall economics of mining rare earth elements and also, again, meet this gap area and displace the need for neodymium in some areas where you might not need it, and then there's more available for other applications that can't be substituted.
Kristin Hayes: Makes a lot of sense.
Helena Khazdozian: And then quickly on recycling. They have another technology—we call it membrane salt extraction—but it's been tailored to recover either various elements or battery-critical materials like lithium and cobalt, nickel and manganese from electronic waste or manufacturing waste.
We have a lot of—I'm happy to follow up with some materials on success stories for this technology, but right now it’s pretty exciting. They've partnered with an industry partner, and they're designing two battery-recycling plants. It's one of the first technologies we're seeing going out into the market and actually making a difference.
Kristin Hayes: That is fantastic. I probably should have started with or asked an earlier question about the geographic landscape for some of these critical materials as well. Some are more rare than others, and yet what is the distribution of some of these critical things when we're talking about geography? How many of these things are available in the United States but might require some of these enhanced-separation techniques? How much are we relying on stockpiles that live in other countries? Can you say anything about that?
Helena Khazdozian: For rare elements, actually, we're the second-biggest miner of those elements in the world, but, because we don't have that midstream capability to separate and refine those rare earth elements, we have to export them. And then we reimport them in the form of value-add manufactured products. Your cell phone, for instance.
In a lot of cases in rare earth elements, it's interesting because they're not actually rare. They're commonly distributed in the earth’s crust, but to find them in an economic, mineable quantity is less common, right? So, it's a misnomer to a large extent. For other materials—cobalt is a good example. We don't have a lot of cobalt—I should say “known reserves” of cobalt—in United States.
But there is a huge opportunity to recycle cobalt from lithium and batteries at end of life. So that's a big effort that the Department of Energy funds, too: We're both looking to reduce the amount of cobalt in batteries, but also recover cobalt at end of life.
We can do other things, like extending the lifetime of the technologies, right? They're making better use or even reusing them after the EV battery is done; you can use it in a stationary storage application. There are a lot of different ways to mitigate against supply issues. We focus on all of those different aspects at the Department of Energy.
Kristin Hayes: Very interesting. Well, nothing like ending on a hard question, but I'm going to close the substantive part of our conversation by asking one.
Among these three big areas that we've talked about—supply diversification, developing substitutes, driving reuse and recycling—what are the thorniest challenges that CMI is facing? And maybe I'm going to flip this and also ask it in a slightly more optimistic way. But if there were one or two breakthroughs that you feel would most move CMI's mission forward, what would they be?
Helena Khazdozian: The first is the work that they're doing to advance processing in that midstream separation and refining aspect. We talked a lot about separations. We didn't talk as much about the next step, which is taking that separated oxide form and making it into a metal and then an alloy that goes into the magnet. They have a lot of work on looking to reduce the temperature of that, the number of steps used to do that—basically increasing the efficiency of these processing technologies. Two things that are really exciting about that: One is that it has the potential for us to develop these capabilities in the United States. But it also would be cutting edge.
A lot of times, people think, “If it's more environmentally friendly, it must be more costly.” But that's not always the case. A lot of times, the drivers to reduce costs also reduce environmental impact. That's a really exciting aspect.
But in general what's challenging and exciting for the future for CMI is that transition of technology into industry. That's something that DOE has expanded in the last couple years. We've had over a decade of investment and fundamental research and applied research and development. But now, in the last couple years, we've really expanded that portfolio to include some small pilots and demonstration projects—validating technologies at industrially relevant levels.
Most recently, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was passed. It's really exciting because it gave Department of Energy the opportunity to expand our efforts for pilot and validation and also add some commercialization activities into the fold. We're looking forward to engaging with our stakeholder base to design a broader program of critical materials, spanning from applied research to basic research all the way through commercialization. Looking at all levels of the supply chains, different aspects of science and technology innovation, and getting things out into the world so that we can start solving all these challenges that we see.
Kristin Hayes: And also learning from those deployment opportunities, too. I imagine that, in all industries, there is some learning by doing that can come forward as you start to get these things out into the world. Very exciting.
This has been great: what I would consider a lift of the curtain on all of the research that in fact underpins the ways that we create the technologies that we use every day. I really appreciate that insight as well as learning specifically about CMI and the work that you all are supporting.
And I do want to close with our regular feature, Top of the Stack. So, Helena, let me ask you: Do you have any recommendations for our listeners? Good content can be in book form, article form; related to this topic, not related to this topic. But anything you'd want to recommend to our listeners who are interested broadly in resource issues? What's on the top of your stack?
Helena Khazdozian: I love this question. I just finished reading the Golden Compass series, which I've been meaning to do for a long time. I've really enjoyed it. And then next on the top of my reading list is David Sedaris’s newest book. So I'm looking forward to reading that.
Kristin Hayes: For a little humor in life. That's always one of the best medicines. That sounds great.
Thank you again, and I hope we can have an opportunity to highlight some of the work that you all are doing on an ongoing basis, too. I'm sure there will be other success stories to celebrate moving forward.
Helena Khazdozian: Thanks so much, Kristin, for inviting me. This was great.
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