Photo of Glenn Fox

Glenn A. Fox

Associate Director for Physical and Life Sciences

Materials that Matter

Although not often thought of as such, Lawrence Livermore is by any measure a leading materials research laboratory. Even a cursory glance at the work we do reveals that materials science is central both to our basic research endeavors and to our programmatic portfolio. Indeed, complex materials are key to many research efforts, from developing nuclear warhead life-extension programs to creating complex targets for experiments at the Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility. Such experiments rely on “tailored materials,” those created with the right properties for a specific application.

With 290 people, the Materials Science Division is the largest group in Livermore’s Physical and Life Sciences Directorate. This organization is dedicated to creating novel materials and understanding the properties and performance of new and legacy materials often subjected to the most extreme conditions. The division uses state-of-the art experimental, theoretical, and computational tools to accelerate the discovery, qualification, and deployment of uniquely functional materials and advanced manufacturing methods.

The feature article, Reducing Reliance on Critical Materials, describes our work with the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI). The institute’s goal is to find innovative solutions for avoiding a supply shortage of any material, especially rare-earth elements, that could threaten the U.S. clean-energy industry and our broader national security interests. A particular focus of CMI is to address the materials criticality issues associated with five of the rare-earth elements: dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium, and yttrium.

Lawrence Livermore has a very close connection to CMI. Going back to the institute’s origin, Laboratory researchers helped develop the ideas and proposal that ultimately resulted in CMI’s establishment in 2013. In addition, the institute is operated by the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, whose director is former Livermore scientist Adam Schwartz.

The article cites current CMI–Livermore research efforts that are aimed at lessening dependence on rare-earth elements in a host of products, including powerful magnets and fluorescent lightbulbs. Researchers are finding ways to substitute materials with equivalent or superior properties to those found in rare-earth elements, as well as develop new products with reduced rare-earth content. Finally, we are deepening our understanding of rare-earth properties by taking advantage of computational materials models that use Livermore’s supercomputing resources. With these simulations, we are improving our knowledge of how to effectively use materials models, link them across various length and timescales, and couple them with experiments.

Our CMI-related research is both innovative and practical. For example, in our search for efficient new approaches to rare-earth extraction and recovery from ores, we have genetically engineered a common bacterium to adsorb rare earths on its exterior. The accumulated rare earths are then washed off and collected, and the bacteria can be reused. In a related effort, we are testing whether the types of x-ray machines used at airports for baggage screening can also be implemented to pinpoint the location of magnets found in discarded computer hard drives. After removal from the hard drives, these magnets could either be recycled or have their rare earths extracted for other purposes.

One of the Laboratory’s enduring strengths is its ability to forge partnerships and collaborations with other institutions, including universities, other national laboratories, government agencies, and private industry. As an example, Livermore is partnering with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and General Electric to develop new formulations with reduced rare-earth content for phosphors used in fluorescent lightbulbs. Livermore researchers, responsible for reformulating the red-light emitting phosphor, have created a compound that is rare-earth free. This phosphor appears to meet requirements of long use, high efficiency, proper color rendition, low cost, strong absorption at the required wavelength, chemical stability, and environmental safety. Experiments to find the ideal replacement have been assisted by quantum simulations of prospective phosphors.

Unique to CMI is a team of economists who monitor the state of critical materials and their likely effect on U.S. global competitiveness. The team’s work recognizes that today, economic and security interests are increasingly inseparable and that science and technology are at the heart of the United States’ competitive advantage. Livermore researchers also acknowledge this fact as we strive to develop materials and manufacturing technologies to advance the nation’s clean-energy industry.