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

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.

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