The Obama Administration has just launched a $120 million research program for new energy materials called the Critical Materials Hub, which is designed to ensure that U.S. companies get a steady supply of rare earths and other resources needed for manufacturing solar cells, advanced batteries and other alternative energy technologies.
The program also bears with it the potential to leverage economic development beyond its immediate sphere of research. Like the other innovation hubs started by the Obama Administration, the Critical Materials Hub establishes a centralized cluster that could be used as a valuable green branding and promotional opportunity for private companies and local governments.
The Philadelphia Innovation Hub
For a window into the potential for innovation hubs to spur local development related to other sustainability initiatives, let's take a look at Philadelphia, where the city's Navy Yard once employed 40,000 in its WWII heyday but was derelict by the 1970's.
A cleanup and redevelopment program slowly began to bring in new employers, and then in 2010 the U.S. Department of Energy selected the Navy Yard as the location for a new $122 million Energy Innovation Hub focusing on new technologies for energy-efficient buildings.
Within a month, the European home energy efficiency company Mark Group announced that it would bring in 300 new jobs into the site.
In addition, the Hub cemented Philadelphia's green image with stakeholders, giving a push to new green job-creating programs in both the public and private sectors.
Earlier this year, the energy giant Ameresco announced that it would team up with Philadelphia to build a $47.5 million wastewater-to-biogas facility, and the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would invest $2 billion in the city for new green infrastructure focusing on innovative stormwater management strategies.
The Hub has also contributed to a firm local platform of support for the Philadelphia Eagles football franchise, which has been staking out a leadership position in sports sustainability.
The team's latest initiative is a solar energy plan with NRG Energy, which will enable the stadium grounds to generate about six times the power needed for home games.
The Critical Materials Research Hub
Rare earths play a key role in new energy technologies because of their extraordinary magnetic and luminescent properties, as well as their powerful ability to act as catalysts for chemical reactions.
The catch, obviously, is that these materials are rare. In addition to price spikes caused by the vagaries of global markets, the supply of rare earths is at risk for purposeful manipulation.
The mission of the Critical Materials Hub is to attack these price and supply disruptions on two general fronts. One is to focus on the rare earths themselves, and develop new supply chains, efficiencies and lifecycle management strategies.
The other area of focus is to develop new technologies that rely on more common materials, or on materials that can be sourced domestically.
Energy Hubs for Green Jobs
A few months back, when the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was still wide open, the candidates had a field day criticizing President Obama's support for alternative energy research. However, Federal support for public-private research hubs has been a commonplace of modern American governance for generations.
President Obama's energy hubs can trace their roots back to a series of public-private partnerships that resulted in transformative technologies, including the Bioenergy Research Centers established under President Bush in 2007 as part of his administration's Advanced Energy Initiative.
The Materials Hub is the fifth energy hub established by the Obama Administration. The Philadelphia Navy Yard hub was first, and there are also hubs for artificial photosynthesis and the improvement of nuclear technologies. Earlier this year, the Administration also announced that it was accepting proposals for a new Batteries and Energy Storage Innovation Hub.
The deadline for proposals for the Batteries Hub is past, but if you want in on the Materials Hub there is still time to get your proposal in.
For more information check out the Energy Department's Funding Opportunity Announcement.
Image: Courtesy of Ames Laboratory via flickr.
Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.