GREENWIRE | The Energy Department this week unveiled its final list of “critical materials,” a determination that could shape how the agency spends billions of dollars to thwart climate change and bolster a shift to electric vehicles and renewable energy like offshore wind and solar.

The assessment deems more than a dozen materials critical, including the addition of natural graphite needed in EVs and copper for transmission lines, as well as engineered materials like silicon carbide and electrical steel used in electronics and EV inverters. The list also includes minerals like lithium, cobalt and nickel, which are used in EVs, as well as rare earth metals.

DOE’s final list reflects highly sought-after materials that not only face supply chain risks, but also have no easy substitutes. It’s a distinction that allows DOE to prioritize a supercharged flow of money allocated by laws like the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and last year’s Inflation Reduction Act toward establishing domestic supply chains for key materials currently dominated by countries like China.

“These risks could jeopardize the ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the desirable timeframe to avoid significant climate change,” authors of the report wrote. “In some cases, it may be necessary to take action to improve the resilience of these material supply chains and mitigate supply risks.”

Congressional, federal and industry attention on critical minerals and materials has skyrocketed in recent months with the passage of the IRA and the ensuing boom in EV battery plants and mineral processing facilities. DOE has been at the forefront of those investments through direct grants, as well as loan guarantees for everything from mineral processing facilities to EV battery plants.

The agency’s assessment will inform those decisions as the demand for EVs, clean energy and transmission grows, said Diana Bauer, deputy director of DOE’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office and an author of the report.

But DOE is just one part of a broader, multiagency effort tied to the Energy Act of 2020 aimed at shoring up domestic supply of materials needed to achieve national security and climate goals. That law authorizes DOE to determine which nonfuel minerals, elements, substances and other materials are “critical” for technologies to produce, transmit, store or conserve energy, but face a high risk of supply chain disruption.

The same law gives the U.S. Geological Survey the ability to craft lists of “critical minerals,” but through a different and wider lens. While DOE focuses on energy globally, USGS hammers out lists of minerals that are essential to economic and national security but vulnerable to supply chain disruptions.

While some have said the multiple lists are a potential source of confusion, Bauer with DOE insisted that having more than one assessment is part of a “cohesive, coherent approach” and that the assessments complement each other and are appropriate for each individual agency’s purview. Bauer also said the analysis underpinning the DOE assessment can help the agency figure out how to address supply chain problems in a quickly evolving landscape, from potentially targeting a lack of processing to boosting research and investment around recycling of EV batteries.

“DOE is about solving complex problems,” she said. “We need to be prepared to engage in multiple places as the clean energy economy matures.”

Questions loom
Exactly how DOE’s list will shape research and federal funding is not crystal-clear.

The assessment deems critical a total of 18 materials, including aluminum, cobalt, copper, dysprosium, electrical steel, fluorine, gallium, iridium, lithium, magnesium, natural graphite, neodymium, nickel, platinum, praseodymium, terbium, silicon and silicon carbide.

DOE said the total list has 55 materials and minerals, as it includes all of the minerals that USGS has deemed critical.

Those assessments could be used as money is doled out under the bipartisan infrastructure law, which includes billions for a host of projects, from critical mineral processing to wind and solar.

DOE’s report could also shape how money through the IRA is distributed. The law sets aside billions of dollars under its 48C tax credits for wind, solar, battery storage and critical minerals and materials, including $10 billion in the form of tax credits.

But Ben Steinberg, executive vice president and co-chair of Venn Strategies’ critical infrastructure group and a former DOE official, questioned how USGS and DOE reached different conclusions around whether something is “critical,” and said it’s not clear how those assessments will be woven into future legislation and ultimately affect which projects are prioritized or quality for federal funding.

While DOE’s addition of materials like silicon boosts those industries, Steinberg noted that synthetic graphite needed for EV batteries didn’t make the cut. And while DOE’s list includes copper, the USGS list does not.

Steinberg said those differences could create confusion. “It’s showcasing an incongruence from the federal government on where they stand on these different materials,” he said.

To ensure clarity, Steinberg said federal agencies should include lists of critical minerals and materials made by the departments of Defense, the Interior and Energy in future funding opportunities and legislation.

“I’d like to see them use all three,” he said.


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