Q&A - Alex King Director of The Ames Laboratory

Materials World magazine
3 Jun 2013

Alex King, Director of the The Ames Laboratory in Iowa, USA, talks about the global rare earths supply challenge, working with a Nobel Prize winner and why he’ll always have a preference for chalk.

Tell me about your background in the industry.
I earned my Bachelor’s degree at the University of Sheffield and my doctorate at the University of Oxford, both UK, in the 1970s, working on radiation damage in metals. After the incidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, that area of work ceased to be of great interest from a funding perspective, so I learned to adapt. I used my skills in electron microscopy and modelling to work on a variety of different materials issues, including thin films, nanoparticles, polymers and a few others.

Where does your main area of interest currently lie?
I’m still fascinated by interfaces. Almost all of the interesting things that materials do relate to interfaces in some way.

What led you to the USA?
Job prospects were not great in the UK when I finished at Oxford, and the offer to work as a postdoc with Bob Balluffi at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was too attractive to pass up. What was intended to be a temporary sojourn in the USA seems to have become permanent.

You were appointed Director at The Ames Laboratory in 2008. What appealed to you about the role?
Prior to taking the role I was the Department Head at Purdue University in Indiana. The Ames Lab is bigger, more capable and more focused than any university materials department can be, but it is still primarily focused on materials – I felt it had great potential to make significant contributions to science and economic development.

Are there any aspects of working in academia that you miss?
I don’t lecture any more, which can be a lot of fun if you have good students to work with. However, I’m not sure that I would be able to cope with all of the technology used in the classroom today!I used chalk the last time I lectured – it is a material that is uniquely well suited to its purpose, with an ideal combination of mechanical and optical properties.

Have you developed greater commercial awareness since joining Ames?
Commercial awareness was not required when I started out in academia and from time to time some funding agencies even discouraged it, but the general trend has been towards encouraging more applicable research. I have always consulted with industry, but my engagement with the corporate sector is greater now than it has ever been.

Tell me about the work that goes on at The Ames Laboratory.
It is primarily a materials science laboratory. Most of the funding comes from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, so it is engaged in some fairly basic physics and chemistry, as well as materials engineering. It has what seems to be a unique capability to actually make novel materials – for example, ultra pure metals, precise alloys, powders and single crystals – so there is a very strong interaction and collaboration between people who dream up new ideas and those who can turn them into reality. Alongside that, we have some strong capabilities in chemical analysis and materials characterisation. And, as Ames is part of the DOE, we have access to amazing capabilities around the national laboratory complex.

Did you notice a big cultural difference working for a government laboratory after working in academia for more than 20 years?
The Ames Lab is a US DOE national laboratory and was initially established as part of the Manhattan Project, like many of its sister labs. Unlike most of the others, though, it is located on a university campus, at Iowa State University, so we have some of the benefits of being embedded in academia. The lab has an interesting challenge in striving to operate like a national lab while many of its researchers – myself included – hold academic appointments, too. But instead of pursuing self-directed research projects, at The Ames Lab we pursue larger projects that can have varying teams of researchers over the years. Also, the research topics tend to be more focused on government agendas than pure curiosity.

Can you tell me about any exciting work currently underway?
What a terrible question to ask a lab director – all of our work is exciting! Some materials that were made here were part of the Planck space mission that recently mapped the oldest light in the universe (a lanthanum-nickel-tin alloy that we developed was used in its cryocooler system). And you probably have some material in your pocket that was developed at Ames – we invented the lead-free solder that is used in devices such as mobile phones to make them safer to recycle. Currently, we are working on some exciting things with metamaterials, superconductors, catalysts, magnets and novel processes.

You work with Danny Shechtman, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2011. Tell me about his role at Ames and what it is like to work alongside a Nobel Prize winner.
Danny works here for about four months each year and the rest of his time belongs to Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. Here at Ames he works on alloy development, which is what he was doing at the National Bureau of Standards when he made the discovery that won the Nobel Prize. Since he won the prize we have seen quite a bit less of him, as he has been travelling widely and giving lectures. He has been using the fame and the credibility that it brings to tell everyone, from world leaders to school kids, about the importance of science. Behind all that, though, he’s basically unchanged. He’s fun to be around, and a great storyteller. Of course, he has some great stories to tell about the discovery of quasicrystals and the challenges that ensued.

What challenges does the USA face in sourcing and extracting rare earths, and how is it going about solving these issues?
Rare earths are essential ingredients in high-powered magnets, LEDs and fluorescent lights, catalysts, abrasives, optical glasses, and many other materials and devices. Demand for them is growing as we move to more energy-efficient technologies such as wind turbines, hybrid and all-electric vehicles, and more efficient lighting. Yet a few years ago, the number of sources of rare earth elements had dwindled essentially to just one – China. When prices for the rare earths spiked in 2010 it got the attention of everyone who uses them, as well as the various governments around the world – initially the major manufacturing nations such as Japan and Korea. The USA is concerned that if it does not have access to these materials, then manufacturing will move to places that do. A number of research efforts have been started, addressing different aspects of the problem.

What is Ames’ role in the Critical Materials Institute (CMI)?

  • The CMI is one of the responses to the supply challenge for the rare earths and is funded at US$120m over five years. Although The Ames Lab leads it (largely because we lead the world in research on rare earth elements), we are partnered with three other national laboratories, seven universities and seven corporations. We focus on a broad range of approaches, including
  • increasing the number of viable sources
  • finding alternative materials
  • improving manufacturing efficiency and recycling so we use less
  • underlying basic science – including economic analysis (something I have become a big fan of), which supports all of the above

How long will it take for these projects to enable production of clean energy in the USA?
We have a variety of projects that will have impact in differing timeframes. The trick is to get the solutions ready for when they are needed most, so we spend a lot of time trying to forecast demand and looking for technical solutions that can be realised when they are most likely to be required. Some of our work will have an impact very quickly, maybe two or three years, but other parts may take longer.

How do you predict the rare earth supply situation will change over the next 10 years?
All I can tell you is that it will change. The rare earths are especially challenging because they are all found together, although in differing amounts. If you need europium and terbium for lighting and displays, you get them in small quantities from mines that also produce much larger quantities of cerium, lanthanum and neodymium. If we invent a substitute for neodymium in magnets, it might make it harder to get europium and terbium for lighting, so the situation is particularly dynamic.

I’m fond of quoting Winston Churchill, who said ‘those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them’. Cobalt became a critical material after the revolution in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire), in 1978, and it saw a price spike such as the one we have witnessed, 30 years later, for rare earths. Although the price abated after a year or two, much like rare earth prices have today, cobalt has still had wild price swings that continue to this day. I’d like to hope we can prevent that from happening with rare earths and the other critical materials that we address, allowing manufacturers to have faith in a secure and stable supply chain. That’s the real goal – ensuring that the manufacture of clean energy technologies can proceed, unimpeded by questions about the supply of essential materials.

  • As Materials World went to press, it was announced that Alex was to step down as Director of The Ames Laboratory to be Director of the Critical Materials Institute, effective from 1 June 2013.