It didn’t get a lot of notice in Iowa last month when the U.S. Department of Energy chose Ames Laboratory to lead one of only five Energy Innovation Hubs. But a closer look shows how big of a deal the Critical Materials Institute is for the lab and Iowa State University, which operates the installation on a DOE contract. It’s huge, one DOE observer told me: “Knock-your-socks-off huge.”
The hubs are designed, DOE says, to target major national energy goals by integrating and coordinating research across multiple institutions in a way similar to the Manhattan Project and other efforts. One institution was chosen to head each hub, overseeing the research and the money – for Ames Lab’s Critical Materials Institute, that’s $120 million over five years.
The hubs were awarded competitively, and naming Ames Lab to lead the effort in critical materials recognizes the facility’s expertise in rare earth elements and materials science. Long before China came to dominate rare-earth production, making the metals a cause célèbre for American policymakers, Ames Lab was studying their properties and uses in high-tech magnets and other devices. For decades, the lab maintained the Rare-earth Information Center, a clearinghouse and database for information about rare-earths research developments, and issued the quarterly RIC News. (I received and read the newsletter during my years as Ames bureau reporter for the Des Moines Register.)
Ames Lab metallurgist Karl Gschneidner even has become known internationally as “Mr. Rare Earth” for his research in the subject since earning his 1957 doctoral at ISU. Gschneidner still works at Ames Lab and will be chief scientist for the Critical Materials Institute.
The other hubs provide clues to how big this is for Ames Lab and ISU. The lab is considered a minor star in the constellation of DOE facilities. Because it’s largely dedicated to a single subject – materials – it’s smaller and ranks behind the multipurpose national laboratories like Lawrence Berkeley.
Now look at the two other labs chosen to lead hubs: Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago, which runs the Batteries and Energy Storage Hub, and Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which runs the Nuclear Modeling and Simulation Innovation Hub. They’re among the system’s largest, with big research portfolios and giant facilities, like linear accelerators and world-leading supercomputers.
Next, consider the Critical Materials Institute’s partner institutions: Idaho, Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge national laboratories, along with multiple universities (including ISU) and companies (among them: General Electric). Each of those labs is bigger and, especially Livermore and Oak Ridge, have broader missions.
Getting the critical materials hub is a plum that’s vaulted Ames Lab into a pretty good neighborhood.
But money may be an even bigger gauge of the program’s importance to the lab. If the $120 million is split over the hub’s five-year life, it’s $24 million a year (although it’s unlikely to be doled out in such regular installments, the DOE observer told me). The lab’s 2011 estimated budget was just $33.5 million. The hub grant, in theory, would almost double that.
Ames Lab and its director, Alex King (who also heads the hub) will pass most of that money through to the other institutions. (An Ames Lab article says in the first year the lab will get about $2.9 million for operation and $6.8 million for capital expenditures. In later years it will get $5 million to $7 million for operations.) But, as my contact told me, Ames Lab will have a big say in how the money is spent.
Like its role the Manhattan Project, the materials hub is another chance for Ames Laboratory, ISU and Iowa to help the United States get more of the elements needed for energy efficiency, defense and other vital needs, and to find alternatives to those we can’t get.