U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is a sexy guy in his glasses (for a cabinet member), but even he can’t get the public too excited about recycling batteries for national security. At least that’s what I think of Perry’s sleepy announcement earlier this week that the Energy Department is creating a $5.5 million prize for the best recyclers of lithium-ion batteries.
Battery recycling is important for the environment and for national security. Lithium, cobalt and other minerals locked within batteries are essential to the U.S. defense industry’s production of modern military avionics and guidance systems.
Alarmingly, the market for these minerals is dominated by Chinese interests. An escalation of the trade war between China and the United States could create a critical minerals shortage for the U.S. defense industry if China chooses to withhold supplies.
The Trump administration recognized this situation in December 2017, when it published Executive Order 13817. The order identified the need to develop “critical minerals recycling and reprocessing technologies,” but this week’s recycling announcement only deals with the first part of that need.
What about reprocessing, you ask?
It turns out the DOE is supporting another program called the Critical Minerals Institute—organized through the Ames Research Center in Iowa—that is working on technology that could diversify production and develop substitutes to current market demand. But poor and obsolete federal regulation is the biggest impediment to the reprocessing of critical minerals and it will be harder politically to change regulations than to announce prizes.
For instance, it’s believed that much of U.S. annual demand for rare earth minerals—especially the valuable heavy minerals like Yttrium and Dysprosium—is currently entrapped in massive piles of phosphate gypsum that are mined and stacked in central Florida.
These phosphate mines produce 75 percent of U.S. phosphate that is turned into fertilizer, but fears of low-level radiation from radon in the 1980s caused the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ban the shipment and processing of the site’s remaining phosphate gypsum.
As a result, more than a billion tons of waste gypsum rock has piled up in the sub-tropical hinterland sun. About 30 million tons are added to the stacks each year.
Additionally, 30 years on from the Florida gypsum ban, scientists are becoming more skeptical of the radiation dose recommendations initially made by the federal government in the 1960s. These recommendations have led to regulations so strict that they impede any attempt to reprocess and strip out the rare earth minerals from gypsum stacks on site.
The Department of Energy has made a good initial move to solve the domestic critical minerals problem, but the next photo-op for the Secretary and his cool eyewear should be in be in sunny Florida, where a new look at old regulation could solve a big national security problem.