12:45pm

Tue July 17, 2012
Tech

SUNY Buffalo launches $120 million push to replace rare earths

With China largely cornering the market for rare earth metals, domestic researchers are trying to create synthetic replacements.

SUNY Buffalo (UB) wants to corner that effort – and is asking the federal government for $120 million to help.

"A four letter word"

Rare earth metals are increasingly used to produce new technologies, like batteries, lenses, weaponry and the iPad. Without access to affordable rare earths, U.S. manufacturers and future security efforts are placed at a disadvantage, government officials fear.

“They go into components in one area of manufacturing after the other. But the Chinese have a lock hold on these rare earths,” said Chuck Schumer, New York’s senior U.S. senator, to a crowd of Buffalo dignitaries Monday.

Now, researchers in the new field of materials informatics are attempting to fabricate substitutes for rare earths.

Schumer promises to use his clout in Washington to pressure the Department of Energy (DOE) to grant UB $120 million to kickstart the school’s attempt to launch a serious materials informatics effort.

“I think we’re at the top of the list. I think on the merits, we’ll win. But obviously there’s always politics involved,” Schumer said.

Earlier this year, New York legislators elevated UB’s existing work in this field by designating the school’s growing infrastructure a “Center of Excellence.” More than 50 faculty members at SUNY's flagship campus already work in the materials informatics field, giving UB a head start in this increasingly competitive area. 

“Many of these faculty members have been hired in the past six to eight years. They’re fairly young. They’re very hungry and they’re also very good,” said Satish Tripathi, UB president.

The COE designation allows public and private resources to flow into accelerated research with the goal of rapid commercialization of resulting technology.

“Ultimately it could mean a four letter word: jobs. It could mean four words: jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs,” Schumer said.

The senator employed a few of his tried and true Schumer-isms Monday, such as, “turning straw into gold” – referring to translating materials informatics research into new companies and jobs. Schumer also offered a reprise of his tendency to refer to academic research as the “key that will turn the lock” of a new wave of economic development.

“Once the research here at UB is up and running, provided we get the grant, companies will be chomping at the bit to be a part of this new center and locate in Buffalo,” Schumer said.

White House officials reportedly met with UB representatives last month about the DOE grant proposal. Schumer called the meeting "productive" but tried to temper expectations that the $120 million is a sure thing.

Full proposals for the DOE grant are due by the end of August, with a decision expected by the end of the year.

You can follow reporter Daniel Robison on Twitter @robisonrobison.