March/April 2021 | Vol. 26 No. 2
by Kirk Anderson, Industry Director, Industrial System Division, NEMA
Over the past several decades, lighting has undergone tremendous innovation, enabling increases in output per watt of nearly 500 percent in 30 years. An essential ingredient fueling this surge is using a specific group of 17 minerals called rare earth elements (REEs). REEs are a class of minerals with unique characteristics necessary to manufacture many innovative products and high- technology devices.
Like many other high-tech manufacturing sectors, the lighting industry has used REEs to help drive innovation. For instance, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) use four different REEs (cerium, europium, terbium, and yttrium) to reduce energy consumption by 75 percent compared with incandescent lamps. As many as six REEs (cerium, europium, gadolinium, lanthanum, terbium, and yttrium) are needed to achieve more than 80 percent energy reduction and proper color rendering for current light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
These REEs are relatively abundant in the earth’s crust but are found in low concentrations worldwide, making accessing them economically tricky. Despite this, and because of their necessity in advanced manufacturing, REEs are considered vital for our nation’s economic well-being.
While the United States was known for being a leader in supplying rare earth elements in the early and mid-1990s, we have since become 100 percent dependent on imports. China is now the dominant supplier for these minerals, controlling an estimated 80 percent of the global market. Because of geological scarcity, the REE supply chain’s vulnerabilities, geopolitical issues, trade policy, and other factors have become a national security concern.
There has been an increasing number of Federal laws and regulations attempting to reduce manufacturers’ dependence on foreign-supplied REEs to address this issue. Notably, October 2020’s Executive Order 13953 addresses the “threat to the domestic supply chain from reliance on critical minerals from foreign adversaries.” It aims to support the “domestic mining and processing industries.” Other emerging regulations prohibit the procurement of products containing REEs obtained from “adversarial nations.”
While the Federal government approaches the problem through increasing regulatory restrictions, manufacturers are seeking alternative solutions. The surest way to avoid the complications and risks inherent in the REE supply chain is to reduce or eliminate reliance on the minerals. The lighting industry might achieve reduced exposure to REEs through quantum dots (QDs), which are nanosized crystals used not only for general lighting and displays but also in an expanding portfolio of applications. Those applications include solar panels and windows, biomedical markers, anti-counterfeit and identification measures, agriculture, sensors, and light-conducting films. For lighting and displays, in particular, QDs are known for their excellent color and luminance comparable to other technologies. They are available in non-toxic compositions that do not rely on the use of REEs.
However, as the use of QDs increases, challenges remain. As with any emerging technology, standardization, quality, reliability, and broad availability can help other markets with adoption. NEMA will provide opportunities for its Members to shape the response to the REE supply chain crisis through innovative and proactive solutions such as launching the new NEMA Critical Minerals Council. Other strategies under development include researching the feasibility of a NEMA Luminescent Nanomaterials Council and a critical minerals sourcing program to help manufacturers increase supply chain transparency and mineral sourcing confidence. ei