R&D Trends & the Future of Energy with Conner Prochaska

Ryan Morfin is speaking with Conner Prochaska, Chief Commercialization Officer of the Department of Energy (DOE), to discuss the various initiatives that the DOE is currently pursuing.
Ryan Morfin is speaking with Conner Prochaska, Chief Commercialization Officer of the Department of Energy (DOE), to discuss the various initiatives that the DOE is currently pursuing. Nuclear energy is the best-known way to attain carbon-free energy, and the United States proudly holds the “Gold Standard” for nuclear energy production due to the incomparable safety and reliability of our plants. However, as is the case with many forms of energy, storage is the key factor that limits maximum efficiency.

The Department of Energy’s name may be deceptive to those unaware of the true nature and scope of their dealings. The DOE is actually overseeing many research projects and holds great interest in space exploration and commercialization. With Prochaska’s Naval background, he sees trends in the newly announced Space Force that mirror the creation of the Navy. The United States views it as imperative to become the most prominent player in space in order to lay the ground rules before a less moral nation endeavors to do so.

View Transcript

Ryan Morfin:                    Welcome to NON-BETA ALPHA, I’m Ryan Morfin. On today’s episode we have Conner Prochaska, the chief commercialization officer of the Department of Energy, talking to us about government R&D trends in the energy sector and the future of energy. This is NON-BETA ALPHA.

                                           Conner, welcome to the show, thanks for joining us today.

Conner Prochask…:        Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Ryan.

Ryan Morfin:                    So Conner, you work at the Department of Energy and you’ve had a lot of different roles, but right now you’re currently sitting in the office of commercialization. Maybe you can talk a little bit about what the Department of Energy’s doing to maybe dual use technologies or help us become, as we’ve become a net energy exporter, just become more efficient in how we use and generate energy.

Conner Prochask…:        Sure, yeah. It’s a great opportunity to talk right now about energy. It’s a really excited role that I get to sit in right now as the chief commercialization officer of the Department of Energy. The one thing I always like to tell people that don’t necessarily interact with the Department of Energy all that often is that the department is wildly misnamed. The department really is the department of nuclear weapons security and research science. We guard the stockpile of nuclear weapons when it’s not being used by the military or deployed, and maintain that, and that’s roughly half of what the $36, $37 billion budget goes to, is that role. And then we do $18 billion a year of research and development at the Department of Energy.

                                           And I always like to foot-stomp that a little bit. That’s a year, not overall, we’ve done $18 billion annually. So it’s a pretty large portfolio to say the least to look at and see how we can make this research and my role be more impactful. So the bottom line is, there’s a lot of titles that I hold, office of technology transition director, chief commercialization officer. The bottom line of it all is that we want to take that $18 billion of US taxpayer research and see how we can make it as impactful as possible for the US taxpayer, the economy, and in the end the world. Because it really is research that changes the world at the end of the day.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah, and so it’s interesting, so we’re big investors in the oil and gas markets, all of our viewers have allocations in oil and gas. And with the fracking technology that’s been the boom over the last decade or so, can you just touch a little bit on what you see going on in the supply-demand, or the demand destruction, the supply war between Russia and Saudi Arabia? How is that changing the economic calculus for R&D in the future? Because energy’s cheap.

Conner Prochask…:        Yeah, and this is something that I worry about, once again, in that research and development world, which is, it’s real tough and it’s a tough sell to some of the players in the, particularly the oil and gas space, to say in this type of market that you should be putting more money towards your research and development arm, which a lot see as an ancillary or secondary expense. It’s not, by the way. We wouldn’t be in this position if these companies didn’t invest in the research. The reason we are a net exporter of energy here in the United States now, and I always like to remind people as well, when Jimmy Carter in 1977 created the Department of Energy, it was because there were gas lines, and odd and even license plates got gas on a different day, and there wasn’t enough energy in this world to keep this puppy humming.

                                           Now we sit here 40+ years later, 50 years later, and we’re looking at being a net exporter and another point in the whole market, and we’re in a great spot right now as far as where we are in a geopolitical world. If you recall, Iran was doing some stuff in the Straits a few months ago, six months ago, if you will, and I remember when I was a Naval intelligence officer, if that had occurred, everything would have gone up in smoke. There would have been alarms everywhere, people would be deploying, it would be a disaster for our energy security.

                                           When it happened a few months ago, you didn’t see much happen in the market. You didn’t see much happen militarily, diplomatically. We wanted to ease the situation, obviously, but it wasn’t our lifeline any more. And so the research that was done and has been done over the past 50 years by the government and the private sector, can’t say that enough, the private sector deployment and research of the basic science that comes out of the government can never be undervalued. And I really worry, and hope this isn’t true, that we lose a decade, I don’t want us to lose a decade, because of this current crisis. It would be short-sighted, I think. But like I said, the reality of the market is, research is not always directly attached to the bottom line here and today. And so it is something that is troublesome when it comes to the research world.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah, and so technology has looked at, like oil and gas, for instance, the fracking, and it’s been primarily done here in the US, not globally. So there seems to be a lot of more efficient ways to extract oil. That was probably technology that was generated from R&D from DOE in the last 20 to 30 years. What’s your view on, now that energy prices are falling, do renewable projects still make sense? What is the strategic mindset for the country? Should we continue to start developing those geothermal, solar, wave, wind infrastructure assets? Are those critical parts of the energy portfolio?

Conner Prochask…:        Yes. The short answer is yes. But we need to also take this opportunity, and the administration is taking this opportunity, the White House and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, is taking this opportunity to also shore up our base load power ability and our storage ability. Because this is a great opportunity to do that. And we want to make sure we’re finding the ways best to service the country when we do this. One of the things that I always talk about is, when we talk about renewables, when we talk about next generation energy production, how we’re going to move into a cleaner world, a lot of that is understanding that we have the luxury, and it’s also a problem in this country, of having very efficient, reliable, resilient power.

                                           The lights don’t go off every third day like they do in some countries. So we’re trying to rebuild a very reliable system, and the analogy I always use is we’re trying to rebuild an airplane while we’re still flying it. And we’re rebuilding the system, we have to make sure that it’s still safe, reliable, and clean and safe. So those are things that we need to consider. So right now it is a great opportunity to shore up our base load, to shore up our traditional power sources and make sure we’re in a good spot for that, because that will enable us to have that solid foundation just like anything, when you build something you want to have a solid foundation, to go try new and different things in the wind, the solar, geothermal, everything you just named.

                                           We are an all of the above approach, we’re doing research in all of the above. You can’t find an energy technology out there the Department of Energy is not still looking into. Carbon capture, I tell you, I think everybody thinks the real key to the next steps in any kind of renewable energy deployment is storage, which is a huge thing that we want to keep going forward and are going forward. Point to the $30 million DAYS project at the Advanced Research Projects Agency that came out a few months ago, where right now the department is working on what’s called the Energy Storage Grant Challenge, which is taking disparate efforts across the department, because like any big organization with tens of thousands of researchers and billions of dollars, there’s a lot of silos of excellence that we want to merge together to make sure that we can use all the power of the department to unlock what we think is important in energy storage, for instance.

Ryan Morfin:                    And so storage typically means batteries. What is the future of storage? How is that sector trending? Are there, you think, huge advances coming that are going to make some of these Teslas run farther and faster? Just curious where you see the future over the horizon.

Conner Prochask…:        Yeah, I think those are, to use your point, to make your Tesla move further and go further. That’s one part. But if we stay on electric vehicles, for instance, it’s not even just going further, but where’s the infrastructure that helps you do that? Are you able to travel cross country on your Tesla right now? Depends on where you go and how you map that out. But you still have to map that out, basically. And so there’s an infrastructure play there as well. And I’d take it a step above that in what we are really thinking about and concentrating on, is yes, we do want to get longer battery life. I always put in the plug that last year’s Nobel Prize winners for lithium-ion batteries, most of those researchers were significantly funded by the Department of Energy decades ago, and that’s where we got lithium-ion battery technology from, doing the basic research at the department.

                                           So we want to keep doing that, and we’re going to. But let’s talk about grid side storage. Let’s talk about hydro. Let’s talk about flow storage. Let’s talk about the things that can really help us at a grid level have more efficient storage and work harder. When you look at my home state of Texas, we have more wind in Texas than a lot of places in the world. And I think the old saying was, and I don’t know how true it is today, but it had been in the past, that over the past decade or so the state of Texas created more wind power than all but five countries in the world. That’s a lot of wind power. But we couldn’t fully utilize it because of storage. And so what do we need to do to unlock that type of power? That’s really what we want to look at, the big levels.

                                           Now, that being said, we have programs like Beyond Lithium Ion, that’s the name of the program that we’re working on to get to the next generation of batteries, to get to the next generation of technologies. Those are very important to us as well. But when we’re thinking about energy in particular and the energy markets, we want to talk about grid side storage [inaudible 00:11:09].

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, and one trend we hear a lot about in the news is that rare earth minerals are a critical input, and they’ve been gobbled up by foreign countries. Do you guys look at that as a supply chain risk for future R&D? Or how do you guys look at the rare earth mining opportunities?

Conner Prochask…:        We take that very seriously. It is something that is on the forefront of what we do at the department’s mindset, because it is a supply chain, not just for research, it’s a supply chain issue that we need to be concerned about for everything. In defense purposes, in our civilian purposes, and just as I used the example of the way we were tethered to the Middle East oil and gas in previous 30, 50, 100 years, we want to make sure that we aren’t tethered to another region or country to these critical minerals going forward. And so we have projects, we have a critical materials institute at our Ames, Iowa lab, Ames National Lab, we have projects, once again, across the complex working on this. But we also work with our colleagues in the inter-agencies to see how we can use different tactics, different ways to safely and cleanly and environmentally get critical minerals.

                                           Because that is part of the reason. We have different standards here in the United States that we want to uphold as far as human safety and environmental safety that we are not willing to cross some of these lines to get these very important minerals, where other countries are. And so we need to balance that out.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, back to the batteries, though, and less batteries but more storage, so grid level storage, what are these facilities? How do you store grid level, what is it? It’s not a … Maybe it is a battery, or is it just another way of transmission more efficiently? How do you look at that? I just, I guess, haven’t wrapped my mind around what is grid level storage.

Conner Prochask…:        Sure. It could be hydro and flow storage. Some people would say the biggest battery in the country is in the mountains of West Virginia between two lakes, that you use less power during one point to move water back up and then flow it back. And so how can we do that? And I’d say that when we talk about energy storage and security and reliability, really there’s one big piece that we need to address here in the country, and the President and the Secretary are doing that right now, which is our nuclear capabilities here in this country. We do not see the ability for us to get to a carbon free, near carbon neutral, anything like that or any of the goals that people want to accomplish without nuclear. We need it.

                                           And right now the nuclear industry in the United States is, I’m happy to report to say, is getting back on its feet, but we need to continue to do that. And I’d also address that part of the reason we want to be not just players here in the United States but internationally in the nuclear field is because of the same things I talked about with critical minerals. We have standards, we have the gold standard, for that matter, of safety, of reliability. You want a US power plant, nuclear power plant because of those things. You will pay a premium because of those things for your country. And so we want to be players in that, that’s an industry that we need to concentrate on here in the United States.

                                           It’s a difficult industry, no doubt about it, but it’s strategically important, environmentally important, and we’re all in on that. Another area I would say that has a lot of the same issues when it comes to, whether it’s public persona or even some safety issues or environmental issues, that is, is hydro power. Our hydro power infrastructure in this country is old. And what do we need to do to make sure that that can be safe, clean, reliable going forward as well?

Ryan Morfin:                    A few years ago we looked at investing in some hydro in New Jersey, actually, and I didn’t realize they’re still producing, hydro facilities in New Jersey that were built in the 1930s. And so this has long staying power, but I think some of those turbines have not been put back onto the grid. And so as you’re thinking about grid level reliability and increasing capacity, what are your thoughts on micro grids and the fragmented nature of distributed power like that? Is that a strategic plus, or do you think it’s better to have it more pulled in and more centralized control on the future of grid technology?

Conner Prochask…:        Well, you get into another topic here that’s important to think about when we talk about micro grids or macro. Should it be centralized, should it not? And that’s cybersecurity. When you start breaking this apart, there’s two issues. One, can you convince utilities, can you convince companies to go in if they can’t build at scale? If you’re building a bunch of things as opposed to just one big thing, okay, there’s an argument there and there’s a business model. It’s just different. And that really I would put up to probably, that’s a business decision that people need to make.

                                           What is not a business decision is cybersecurity. We need to make sure, and the Department of Energy is the SSA, or sector specific agency, for grid cybersecurity. So that is the responsibility, and the department recently, just two years ago, created under Secretary Perry, was the cybersecurity office called CESER, cybersecurity, electrical, security, and emergency response, I think. Don’t quote me on that. But the CESER office is there to address just that, how can we maintain and focus on that? And so when you break it up into micro grids, that’s one of the things that you need to understand, and people do understand, I think, that you’re also creating a lot more vulnerabilities and a lot more opportunities for something bad to happen.

Ryan Morfin:                    And people are saying that there has been maybe an uptick in cyber events globally. Is that something you guys are seeing? And has the coordination evolved and gotten better, more efficient between utilities and the federal government? Or is it still a work in progress?

Conner Prochask…:        Well, I think that’s part of what the office is meant to do, is to centralize that and to work on that. And I think that has been occurring, it’s something that Secretary Brouillette, the current Department of Energy secretary, is concerned about and discusses a lot. But his leadership is really focused on, how do we bring those to coordination, information sharing, to ensure that we can, as a team, which is really in that world what it is, is a team effort between the federal government and our private partners across the country, work better together and more efficiently?

Ryan Morfin:                    And so solar’s been with us for a long time, and it’s had its heyday maybe 10 years ago, and then now there’s been a lot of distress in some of the solar manufacturing, maybe because some foreign countries have decided to subsidize manufacturing. But what’s your view on the future of solar energy? And has it reached efficiencies and scale that will make it a competitive option going forward?

Conner Prochask…:        Well, solar is in some ways a victim of its own success. And what I mean by that is, decades ago there was a challenge, and not even decades ago, about 10 years ago, the solar challenge at the Department of Energy. Wanted to get price under $1 an hour. It’s down to the penny level in some places of the country. And so it’s so cheap, which is great. I’d say from a research standpoint, which is where I look at it, the question is, “Okay, what research is left to do?” And there is, there’s definitely more to do. But it’s been a success story, bottom line. Now, when we talk about footprint of large scale solar plants and solar utilities, there’s a discussion there that goes beyond the technology area and goes to how we can work.

                                           So I think solar, I think there are research opportunities, we continue to do research at it, there’s a solar office at the Department of Energy. But I once again would veer toward the energy storage application to, once again, just like any other, wind and solar in the same situation there, which is large footprints and we’re getting some great efficiencies out of them, but how do we store that to make them worth our time and while?

Ryan Morfin:                    So one question is, switching gears on you, going to maybe R&D around high energy physics, we’ve got a great set of national labs. What’s your view on the future of funding for large scale particle accelerators? Are we going to be able to move to that next energy level? And if so, when? And how has high energy physics research been maybe slowed down by not investing in that Large Hadron Collider that was supposed to be here, I think, at the University of Texas?

Conner Prochask…:        Right. Part of what I would say is that over the past few years Congress has been very generous to the Department of Energy’s science mission. There’s been large bipartisan support for that, and we are working hard, as you mentioned, for those that don’t know, at the Department of Energy we have 17 national labs across the country. These are the crown jewels, and it’s one of the, if not the largest research complex and effort in the world. And that is where a lot of the great advances that you see go in. One that right now is under way is the DUNE project out of Fermilab outside of Chicago, which is the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment. And this is just a great example of the great research that goes on and the reason the Department of Energy does it.

                                           Which is, for those who don’t know, a neutrino is an extremely small particle. You with your background, Ryan, know and could probably explain it better than I did, because it took me a while to wrap my head around it. But the fact is, neutrinos travel through your body all the time, but they’re so small they don’t usually interact with anything or each other. To give you an idea, think about throwing yourself out into space. And you could probably go for a long time, if ever, without hitting another planet or asteroid or anything out there, because it’s so vast and you’re so small.

                                           So same idea with a neutrino. So we’re going to shoot neutrinos out of the accelerators at Fermi National Lab outside of Chicago and try to catch them a mile underground with a giant neutrino catcher in an old abandoned gold mine in South Dakota. If we can do that and if that project is successful, we will uncover what had happened after the Big Bang. New types of car batteries, nobody really knows what we’re going to find out. The scientists have an idea, but that’s a great example. No private company’s going to take that, no private company is going to go use that, or go chase after that technology, I guess. Because it’s so basic. Once we get it, who knows what’ll happen and who knows what we’ll discover? But it’ll be something that’ll be good for humanity to understand, we’re pretty sure.

Ryan Morfin:                    Conner, I actually worked on MINOS project, which was the Minnesota mine. And I did all the scintillator testing with a robot and a nuclear source. But that was a fun summer. But that is the next energy level, that impacts the standard model and a whole bunch of science is going to pour out of that. So a lot of people don’t know a lot about high energy physics, but one of the cool things that’s starting to happen is, at CERN they did these micro dark matter experiments. Are you at all concerned about creating a micro black hole?

Conner Prochask…:        Yeah, you know, there’s a lot of these what ifs that float around, and it’s not just in this particular discipline. But right now the Department of Energy is going headfirst, if you will, into quantum and quantum information sciences. And there’s a lot of hypotheticals about quantum and what could come out of that. But it’s our responsibility to go out and find those things. So no, I’m not worried about opening up a black hole and sucking us all in. I don’t know if our quantum technology’s going to create time travel or not. But I think it’s an exciting time to be at the Department of Energy, and it’s an exciting time to be, as a non-researcher and as a lawyer and a finance guy in my past, it’s exciting to be able to stand on the shoulders of giants and really look over the shoulders of some of these research giants as they are doing some amazing stuff that’s going to change the world.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah, no, I feel like we’re really living in the pre-Industrial Revolution in terms of energy and science of it. So quantum’s going to change the world, quantum computing, edge computing. How close are we to getting a commercially available quantum computing? Are we 10 years out, are we 20 years out? Or is it still in infancy?

Conner Prochask…:        Yeah, so there’s two answers to that. It almost seems like it’s the classic, how close are we to fusion power? And if anybody’s been around the fusion market, the answer is, we’re 25 years, 20 years away, and we’ve been 20 years away since 1970. I don’t think that’s actually true, we are moving in a big way, and that’s a good success story as well at the Department of Energy, that there is a fusion industry out there of startups, fusion startups, who would have thought? But that’s because of the basic science and research that has been done at the Department of Energy, particularly at Princeton plasma lab, national lab.

                                           But as far as quantum is concerned, it’s the same thing. Where are we right now? Some people, most people would say a decade out. Now, where will we be with the investment that the Department of Energy and the US government is putting into quantum? That could narrow that substantially. It may not. We may find different issues with it. But we believe that quantum is a national security imperative for us to have the upper hand. For those that don’t know about quantum, when we move from what is currently digital computing to quantum computing, if we do, things that take thousands of days for a computer to do now can take a matter of seconds, minutes, and hours. And so when you think about large data that exists out there, your personal data, and the implication for someone else to have the upper hand first of quantum, it’s pretty scary and something we need to pay attention to.

                                           And we plan on doing that. And I’d say what’s also unique about the quantum industry, and when I say that, there is a quantum industry, what’s interesting about that is the industry is happening simultaneously with the research. And what I mean by that is when the Internet was created by DARPA, it started with a few nodes at some universities and then slowly grew as a research network. But it took decades for the commercial industry to realize, “This is some great stuff, we can use this for a lot of great things. This is a great tool.” Quantum, we’re not seeing that. Large financial institutions have already brought in quantum experts to start talking about how they’re going to use quantum. Companies across the board of many different stripes are talking about quantum at the same time.

                                           In fact, there’s a Department of Commerce, through NIS, quantum consortium that has been created of private entities, so that we can work, and this once again is a unique industry being built, we can work simultaneously. The Department of Energy is going to create a quantum network amongst our national labs. We’re putting out funding right now for hubs. We’re doing it because it’s going to really help us do research. But we’re going to do research on the quantum network we’re using for our research in other areas too. And it’ll be a simultaneous and very interesting ecosystem to build with industry and with the department as we go forward. So that’s really something exciting that we’re looking forward to.

Ryan Morfin:                    And a lot of our viewers, I don’t know, so we’re talking about quantum computing and we’re talking about the fact that that computing power is so robust that it can really break encryption keys. And so when I talk to people who are talking about Bitcoin and this and that, I’m like, well, those keys can be broken if you have a quantum computer. And that’s probably the worst question you could ask somebody, an entrepreneur in Bitcoin or in some of these blockchain technologies, is, how are you going to solve for that? And huge national security implications, huge commercial implications. Because if you don’t have a quantum encryption program, anybody who does, whether it’s a nation-state or a bad actor, can really get into any of your firewalls and your systems. Is that the main risk you see?

Conner Prochask…:        It is. It’s very scary. There’s that, there’s the other side of it, which is, once again, and why we believe it’s a national security imperative to move towards quantum at the department and the federal government in general, which is, if you are the first to quantum in communications, those are secure. You win, for lack of a better term. Though it’s a different type of encryption, you can feel secure and safe and sleep well at night. And so it’s two sides of the coin. It can be a great tool, but it is potentially a threat as well.

Ryan Morfin:                    So Conner, maybe you can chat a little bit about another very exciting industry, and today there’s going to be the SpaceX launch, hopefully, fingers crossed. But the space industry has really been taking off, the private space industry working with NASA. I know Department of Energy has a role in that, and can you maybe explain what parts of the industry you guys are focused on working on R&D or working on creating some infrastructure for?

Conner Prochask…:        Well, as everybody knows and can talk about right now is that the Trump administration, President and the Vice President, have been all in on getting us back into space and being able to launch American astronauts from American soil. But beyond that, which there’s two things that get a lot in the news, which are the manned launch that hopefully goes today successfully, and then the other portion, which is the building of Space Force. Which is a very interesting, as a Navy veteran, I always think it’s a very interesting development to watch as Space Force develops. Because the entire industry is happening very similar to the reason we got a Navy in the first place in 1700s, which is, right now we’ve got satellites floating all over the place and we want to make sure we can secure that area against any kind of bad actors that are out there and set some rules of the road so we can set the norms versus someone else.

                                           That was exactly the thought behind, our ships started getting raided in the Mediterranean by the Barbary pirates, and Congress said we need to protect them and we need to set some rules of the road. And so it’s a very interesting evolution to see this all happening again very similarly to the history of the Navy. That being said, the third part that people don’t talk about, they talk about manned space flight, they talk about our Space Force creation, is the emergence of the commercial space industry. This is an entire industry that’s being built, companies that are being created. The launch is a great example. Everybody knows it’s SpaceX and a private company that’s in collaboration with NASA. But that commercial space industry is a really exciting place. And people don’t normally think that the Department of Energy is a big player in that. The Department Secretary Brouillette sits on the space council, which is chaired by the Vice President, with a number of other cabinet secretaries and military individuals and leaders.

                                           But the reason we are is because of the vast amount of research we do. So we’ve done radio isotope thermal generators, RTGs, at Idaho National Lab, which is our civilian nuclear lab. We’ve done those for 40, 50 years. Those are still on Voyager rockets, or Voyager satellites, that are out in space right now. That’s the normal way that people think about Department of Energy interacting with the space industry. But we also can do health sciences. We can run data through our supercomputers. The Department of Energy owns four of the 10 fastest computers in the world at last check, and the two fastest, I think.

                                           We can do material science. We can do hardening, radioactive hardening that we do to protect our nuclear weapons and our researchers. There’s solar panels. If we do decide that the best route is to mine the moon to take us even further places in space, we can do that. That is an area where Department of Energy can lend our expertise. So there’s not many places in the space exploration or space commercial effort that the department wouldn’t be taking place, or be a part of. So it’s a pretty exciting time to be part of that commercial industry that’s building right now as well.

Ryan Morfin:                    And so there’s a lot of focus right now on rockets and engines, new engines, new generation of propulsion systems. And one question is just, where are we with development of plasma fusion engines, and what is the focus of the private space industry’s R&D, do you think, to get that propulsion to maybe go to Mars or have interplanetary travel?

Conner Prochask…:        Yeah, so the term that’s used a lot is that we want to go to Mars and back on one tank of gas. And that includes getting more into fusion and fission in what we can do. So there are some great, as I mentioned, companies and startups that are being built for tens of millions of dollars, not hundreds of millions of dollars, that are looking into this. And so it’s a pretty exciting time and place to be doing that. Particularly companies, I try not to get into where each individual one is, but I can just tell you that it’s exciting and I think it’s worth anybody that’s watching or listening to look into some of these exciting places across the country that are doing exciting research that’s going to change the world.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, I’d asked you to maybe, given the seat that you’re sitting in, and right now it’s volatile times, but what makes you optimistic about America in the next five years? What are some silver linings that you’re seeing that people that are watching just the day to day news may not be paying attention to, but are secular shifts that are going to be very positive for the country?

Conner Prochask…:        Well, I think the positive of all this, and we’re very aware that people are hurting and that this is a tough time, and my thoughts and prayers go out to everybody as they work to get through this, but the silver lining is, we’re in the United States of America. And it couldn’t be more true today, and it will be true tomorrow, that this country, when times of strife, stress, and challenge come across, we come out on top because of, not because of our politicians, not because of our wealth, the reason we have wealth is because we innovate, because we come up with new ideas, because the United States is free to innovate and to make things that nobody else can think about.

                                           And so while we’re sitting here, and one of the things that I constantly think about, is what is the state of innovation going to be as we leave this? When you think about incubators, are they going to exist? A lot of them are based on a coworking method. We want to make sure that those still exist so that these great ideas can continue to pour out. But I’m shocked, and I guess I shouldn’t be because of what I just said and my true belief in the American spirit and the American entrepreneur, but there are great ideas pouring out across the country all the time on how to fix this, what the next innovation is, and what it looks like.

                                           I don’t know if it’s just people sitting at home just getting to think a whole lot more, or if it’s the challenge itself that’s ahead of us, but I think the bright spot, as I said, as somebody that gets to, my role as chief commercialization officer at the department, I get to sit in the catbird seat and look at a bunch of different innovations across the country. And there is no lack and there’s nobody calling it in right now. Whether it’s the great civil servants that we have in the federal government that are working overtime on how best to handle the situation and help people, our innovators across the country and researchers that are there in the government and just sitting in their garage or at a university, people are working overtime and there’s going to be some amazing things that come out of the United States.

                                           I’d also say that I think we’ll come out stronger. I think there’s going to be a reevaluation of, what is the business proposition and the value proposition of building, making, and doing business here in the United States and employing the American spirit, versus maybe someplace else in the world.

Ryan Morfin:                    And so Conner, are there any books you’re reading that have really intrigued you over the last 12 months, or anything you’re reading now that you’d like to share with our viewers?

Conner Prochask…:        Yeah, so a couple things that I’ve got a chance to sit back, and there’s one that’s more businesslike, and then there’s one that I’m just doing for fun, which the fun one is connecting back to American history, and reading right now Sam Houston and the Alamo by Brian Kilmeade, which I think is just a great series. It’s fun, it makes history easy to read and tells you some great stories that you don’t always know about. There’s a whole series out there that I really enjoy. And being a Texan I’m excited about the Sam Houston one. And then right now I’m actually rereading A Passion for Leadership by Dr. Gates, Robert Gates. I call him Dr. Gates because I knew him as President of Texas A&M back in the day.

                                           But Robert Gates, he has a couple great books out there, and the one I’m reading right now, like I said, is A Passion for Leadership. It really is potent right now because it talks a lot about how to effectuate change, specifically in the federal government, and how to work through the bureaucracy that is the federal government. But it applies to any large institution, any large group. And the real challenge is, it’s a very relatable book for someone currently sitting in a leadership position [inaudible 00:39:42].

Ryan Morfin:                    Fantastic. Well, Conner, thanks so much for joining us on a weekend. We appreciate your time and your insights. Would love to have you back in the coming months ahead, and just to connect back. I know it’s a very dynamic time, and a lot of positive things going on in the energy industry. So thank you so much for being on the show.

Conner Prochask…:        Ryan, thank you for having me, and as I said, I hope everybody stays safe and looks forward to being out on the other side of the current COVID issues. But we’re going to be in a brighter and greater America before it’s all said and done. Thanks for having me.

Ryan Morfin:                    Thank you. Thanks for watching NON-BETA ALPHA. And before we go, please remember to subscribe and leave us a review on our Apple Podcast or our YouTube channel. This is NON-BETA ALPHA. And now you know.

Speaker 3:                        All price references and market forecasts correspond to the date of this recording. This product should not be copied, distributed, published, or reproduced in whole or in part. The information contained in this podcast does not constitute research or recommendation from NON-BETA ALPHA, Inc., Wentworth Management Services, LLC, or any of their affiliates to the listener. Neither NON-BETA ALPHA, Inc., Wentworth Management Services, LLC, nor any of their affiliates make any representation or warranty as to the accuracy or completeness of the statements or any information contained in this podcast. And any liability therefore, including in respect of direct, indirect, or consequential loss or damage, is expressly disclaimed.

                                           The views express in this podcast are not necessarily those of NON-BETA ALPHA, Inc. or Wentworth Management Services, LLC, and NON-BETA ALPHA, Inc. and Wentworth Management Services, LLC are not providing any financial, economic, legal, accounting, or tax advice or recommendations in this podcast. In addition, the receipt of this podcast by any listener is not to be taken as constituting the giving of investment advice by NON-BETA ALPHA, Inc. or Wentworth Management Services, LLC to that listener, nor to constitute such person a client of any affiliate of NON-BETA ALPHA, Inc. or Wentworth Management Services, LLC. This does not constitute an offer to buy or sell any security. Investments in security may not be suitable for all investors. An investment of any security may involve risk and the potential loss of your initial investment. Investors should review all risk factors before investing. Investors should perform their own due diligence before considering any investment.

                                           Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investment products, insurance, and annuity products are not FDIC insured, not bank guaranteed, not insured by a federal government agency, may lose value.


Download Transcript

Share This Episode

Subscribe To Our Podcast!


Recommended For You

View Transcript

Ryan Morfin: Welcome to Non-Beta Alpha. I'm Ryan Morfin. On today's episode, we have Pini Althaus, CEO of USA Rare Earth, talking to us about the supply chain glut in rare earth minerals. This is Non-Beta Alpha.

Ryan MorfinPini, Welcome to the show. Thank you for coming on today.

Pini AlthausThank you for having me, Ryan. Good to be here.

Ryan Morfin: So you're an investor and a miner in rare earth minerals. Can you share with our listener base, what are rare earth minerals? Why are they important and why is there a geopolitical race going on globally?

Pini AlthausYeah, I mean, rare earths are an extremely ubiquitous part of all advanced manufacturing or technology manufacturing today's day and age. Several years ago, I had not heard too much about rare earths myself. I was not that familiar with it and being involved in this sector, in this company, for the past few years has given me an education of course. And I mean, I was sad to hear that 50% of all imports into the United States contain are earth elements and it runs the gamut from consumer electronic devices that we use every day. Our cell phones, our laptops, most communication devices, medical equipment. So there's a tie with COVID, which we can touch on at your discretion. Electric vehicles, defense equipment. So pretty much anything or everything high tech today has a rare earth element or critical minerals contained within them.

Ryan MorfinAnd what are some of the names of some of the more important rare earth? I know there's lithium for batteries, but what else is considered in this category, critical?

Pini Althaus: Yeah, so lithium is a separate category to battery material. The rare earths are 17 rare earths. The four, let's call it, key rare earths that we're focused on at our company, the four rare earths that go into the permanent magnets. And these are the magnets that are found, there are a number of them in your back of your cell phone or an iPad. But if you look at an F35 striker jet, you've got about a ton of rare earth magnets in those. And we've got two heavy rare earths and two light rare earths is part of the permanent magnets. You've got dysprosium, ytterbium are the heavies, and then you've got neodymium, praseodymium as the two light rare earths. So those would be key rare earths that are the focus.

Ryan MorfinAnd you use these in, I guess, in military applications as well, but historically, where has the United States sourced the rare earth for supply chain?

Pini AlthausYeah. And that's the shocking part. We've been securing those materials from China. So China controls the rare earth sector and has done so for the past 30 years or so. And it was a significant misstep on the part of the United States, allowing China to have this control. And actually this wasn't a question of China coming in and doing anything nefarious as far as stealing IP or anything. The US government made a conscious decision about 30 years ago to allow China to come to the United States and acquire the processing capabilities for rare earths. So just as part of some background, you've got the rare earth materials containing various mining projects, but once you extract them, you have to then process them and they go through certain phases before they get to the magnet phase. And China, the thought process was let China do the mining, let China do the processing.

Pini AlthausWe don't need to do that here. And we'll buy the materials from China cheaply and the premier of China at the time, Deng Xiaoping made the comment, he said, "The Middle East has oil. China has rare earths." And unfortunately we weren't smart enough to understand what he was saying. And the Chinese understood that the future of manufacturing is going to revolve around control of the rare earth and critical mineral supply chain. So if you think about it today, Ryan, we cannot build... Forget about consumer electronics and medical equipment. We cannot build the equipment that the US Pentagon or the US armed forces require, whether it's F35 fighter jet, Tomahawk cruise missile, communications equipment, without going to China and obtaining those materials. And it's obvious to all that this should be extremely alarming. We've seen China use this as a weapon, if you will, as far as how it interacts with other countries back in 2010, when there was a dispute between China and Japan on the East China Sea.

Pini AlthausSo China cut off rare earth exports from Japan for 40 days. Japan obviously being a significant user of rare earth elements for their high-tech manufacturing sector, that was stopped after 40 days. But in fact, it was President Obama that first made the United States aware of this, formed a division within the Department of Defense to handle this issue, but not much has happened. And we continue to be relying on China for these materials. And what has been made about trade war with China and whether the trade war is really the impetus for China withholding rare earth exports. And that is a huge misnomer. Whilst China had been talking or implying that they would cut off rare earth exports, the truth of the matter is that China, under it's made in China, 2025 mandate, its belt and road initiatives and others. And you seem to control the critical minerals and rare earth supply chain so that it can continue its dominance as a manufacturer or a global supplier of these materials and finished products.

Pini Althaus: It's the backbone of its economy. And in fact, China has become a net importer of rare earths from different countries like Miramar and others. So with that, they are decreasing the exports to countries like the United States, Japan and others.

Ryan Morfin: And was it ever a risk that the Chinese were going to turn off the exports of rare earth to the US during the trade war? How close were we to that? And was that ever some saber rattling that went down during trade negotiations?

Pini AlthausYeah, I think it was saber rattling. I think it would be paramount to an act of war. I can't say with any authority that that would not happen, but it would be probably, aside from war itself, it would be one of the most significant acts of war cutting the United States off from the ability to procure rare earths. But that being said, I mean, if you look at, as an analogy, the oil and gas sector and the reliance of the United States had for many, many years on OPEC countries to supply us with the oil. And we had embargoes and we had price manipulation by OPEC. This is far more significant given the ubiquity of where these rare earths go. And yes, we're always under the threat that China can cut off exports under the guise of a trade war or for any other nefarious reasons.

Pini AlthausBut I think even more importantly, to just as the natural run of the course of things with regards to their business and their desire to maintain themselves as the global leader in manufacturing and exporting of goods, China is in a position now where it actually requires these materials for their own domestic consumption and can legitimately cut off rare earth exports by stating that they need it for manufacturing and that would actually be somewhat correct. So we're in an extremely dangerous position here with this reliance on China. And it wouldn't just be China. If it was another country, it would be similar issues, not to the same extent, but reliance on one country for these materials is dangerous.

Ryan Morfin: And it's been mentioned in the past that in 2010, China flooded the market to really kill all the competitors in the rare earth mining industry. Where was the World Trade Organization during this period? And how did that play out and how does that set the chess board for China to run the tables?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah. So the WTO stepped in when China cut off rare earth exports from Japan, I think it lasted for about 40 days because the US and Japan protested the WTO, and they stepped in and China resumed exports. While I'm not an expert on these trade matters, one thing that I am aware of is that one of the reasons why China had to resume the export of rare earths was it did not legitimately need all the rare earths for domestic consumption. So therefore it was a nefarious act, if you will, to cut off rare earth exports. Now that has changed, which means China have to cut off rare earth exports today, they have a legitimate case to say that they require these materials. There's a shortage of these materials and they require them for their own domestic purposes. It is the backbone of their economy and there's very little we could do about this today, which is why it's becoming an even more urgent issue.

Ryan Morfin:

And the US government started stockpiling some of these after that incident. Can you talk a little bit about what DOD and DOE has done to start making sure that there's not a critical supply shortage going forward, and is it enough?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah, again, there is a national defense stock pile, and there are materials still that the United States needs to procure in order to shore up its stockpile. There are magnets, the finished magnet products as well, the United States government needs to stockpile. Again, there's a limited amount that the United States government has. It requires approval from Congress, whether it's in the NDAA or other approvals from Congress, to allocate monies for the national defense stock pile of these materials. That being said, there's no endless supply of these materials. And unfortunately, the apparatus, the way it's set up right now with the US government, it's going to continue to require having a secure supply chain of those materials for many, many years to come. So it's not a question of stockpiling for 10 or 20 years, and then this complacency and saying, we'll kick the can down the road. But keep in mind as well, Ryan, that US government accounts for low single digits of overall rare earth imports into the United States.

Pini Althaus:

We're talking about defense contractors, we're talking about the manufacturing sector. The direct impact this has on the economy, jobs, the automotive sector, and others is significant. So it's not just limited to the United States government. If you look at over the past couple of weeks, the sanctions that China have put on Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed, et cetera. I mean, the question is where are they going to get those materials? And if we go beyond that, you need rare earths for the 5G network. Now that Huawei has been banned from installing the network, not only in the US but other countries, we have to have the ability to get a secure supply of these materials as well. Which currently, again, trying to control the hundred percent. So it runs across the board, both for government, defense and manufacturing in this country.

Ryan Morfin:

Well, and so help me paint a picture for our audience. Does China have all the mines for rare earth, or they're the only ones who started mining it? Or are their mines globally dispersed and nobody's been doing the actual infrastructure to do the mining?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah. So finding rare earth projects or rare earth elements is not the difficult part. It's finding them in significant quantities that makes a project economically viable. And part of that consideration are the environmental rigors that companies in the West have to adhere to. And China, even by their own admission, have had a complete disregard for mining these materials and even for processing these materials. And in fact, just the last week or so, the BBC did an expose on this, 60 Minutes has done an expose on this. But the Chinese have not denied this and have talked about cleaning up their act, but it has an effect on the bottom line for what the costs of mining and processing are if you have no environmental standards to adhere to. So China have exploited those rare earth projects they have, primarily in inner Mongolia, and have brought a number of projects online and quite quickly, and in a significant way, with a complete disregard for the environment.

Pini Althaus:

So it was seen as an environmental no-no in the West for many years. Now, what's happened over the past few years is you're starting to see rare earth projects in different parts of the world sprout up. You've got the Mountain World project in Australia owned by Linus, which is a producer of Nd and Pr, neodymium and praseodymium. So two of the light rare earths. They may have some heavy rare earths coming online at some point in time. And you've got Arafura, which is another company in Australia that we're working with to assist them with their processing so they don't have to send the materials to China for processing. But really these are a drop in the bucket for what the requirements are for the United States. And certainly what the requirements are for allied countries, the EU, et cetera. So there is a race, if you will, worldwide to start bringing projects online. The Chinese are very active in trying to secure assets outside of China.

Pini Althaus:

So in Africa. They have ownership of a project in Greenland. So there is somewhat of a race. The Australian government has stepped in and has started limiting the ability for China to own, or have ownership in, or off takes for the Australian rare earth projects. And that's part of the strategic Alliance between Australia and the US. Canada, similar thing as well. There are a number of projects that are looking to come alive, but these projects are, for the most part, will take many, many years to come online. We have to expedite the process. We have to assist with a [inaudible 00:14:41] supply chain and the domestic rare earth sector, because previously investors have been scared off by things like China flooding the market, which is not a possibility at this point in time, given that China can't actually afford to flood the market. They are already very heavily subsidizing their mine to magnet supply chain there.

Pini Althaus:

This is more now a case of being able to get production from non-Chinese sources so that the United States and allies have a viable, secure supply chain of these materials. And it's a concern worldwide. We speak to governments all over the world, and we're all facing the same issue. Some more than others, especially countries like Japan, that don't have their own rare earth projects there and are reliant on Australia where they've made some investments there. And in the United States, they've made an investment recently in Africa. So there is this race, if you will. And I think we've got a five-year window here to at least stand up a few projects worldwide. Otherwise we've lost this race and we will be dependent on China for many, many years to come. And Ryan, it's a bit of a hypocrisy. If you look at it where you've got materials going through clean, green energy applications, like electric vehicles, wind turbines, et cetera.

Pini Althaus:

That we're sourcing these materials from China, where they've, again by their own admission, has been complete environmental devastation to water bodies around these mines and processing facilities, to the communities. People have been getting sick around these projects yet we're putting these materials into our electric vehicles or wind turbines. It makes no sense at all. And people are starting to wake up to this. And that's why the sector is starting to see a lot of support come out of Congress and bi-partisan support. And in fact, it's one of the only bi-partisan issues right now in Washington. And it's good to see that some things decided to move in the right direction.

Ryan Morfin:

And is there a special process? You talk about the expense, is it really difficult to mine these? You have to go through a special chemical process to extract and clean and purify. Is it a lot harder than, say, gold or silver or some of the other, we'll call, more traditional elements?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah. It's all about the processing to some extent. So if you look at MP Materials in California, which used to be Molycorp before they went through their bankruptcy. They are a miner of Cerium and Lanthanum, which are two of the light rare earths, the lower valued light rare earths. Given that they do not currently have processing technology, they are sending those materials to China for processing where China is tariffing those heavily. Linus is also, they're doing their processing work in Malaysia and elsewhere. So it's really about the processing at this stage. One of the things that we've done, after we put out our PDA last year with our upgraded resource, which now includes a significant amount of lithium. We make a decision that, based on the test work that we had done around our processing methodology, that we were not going to send our materials to China. That it's paramount for us to do this work in the United States and in a collaborative effort as well.

Pini Althaus:

We've been asked by some of our investors, "Well, why would you be looking to help other projects with their processing?" And the answer is simple. There's no one project or one company that's going to put China out of business or make a dent, or somehow be able to take care of the overall demand worldwide for rare earths and critical minerals. And it's very important for us to have processing capability in the West. So that was the impetus for us opening up our own rare earth and critical minerals processing facility earlier this year, which we did in Wheatridge, Colorado. And in fact, we've made some significant progress on the method that we're using for this. And we're starting to collaborate with Australian companies, Canadian companies. We're currently talking to a group over in Europe as well, because this has to be a collaborative effort.

Ryan Morfin:

How does Europe solve for these problems? Do they have this better under control than the US?

Pini Althaus:

No, they're in a far worse position than we are. The EU commission recently put out a report, I think, a couple of months ago that the requirement for rare earths is going to increase tenfold within a short period of time. Lithium 18 times. They don't really have rare earth projects. Again, there are the Greenland projects, which people have heard in the news recently. Those need to further development work so they don't have rare earth projects ready to come online there. There are a couple of lithium projects that are spread around Europe, but for the most part, Europe is in an even more precarious position. If you look at Germany with the auto manufacturers, you look at the big companies like ThyssenKrupp and others, all these countries and companies are looking for alternatives to China, because we've already seen in the news about China withholding or reducing exports of some of these rare earths that are required for these industries.

Ryan Morfin:

And you mentioned earlier the regulatory posture of the US makes it difficult to mine. Is it becoming a more bi-partisan issue that we need to maybe relax some regulation around the mining exercise, to incentivize private sector to come in and start producing this? Or is the Republican party versus the Democratic party on two separate pages of music?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah. Good question, Ryan. I mean traditionally the Republican party is obviously being more pro-mining and in favor of less regulation when it comes to these things. With regards to our project, we're on Texas state land. So we don't trigger federal environmental permitting at this point in time. And obviously Texas being Texas, a mining state and oil and gas state, things are a lot easier in Texas than they are on projects on federal land where the Bureau of Land Management controls the environmental process around that. But the thing is here, and I don't want to step into what other companies are doing, et cetera, but we do need to be reasonable about allowing projects to come online if they're adhering to environmental standards that are acceptable worldwide. And what we do know, is that China is destroying the environment and cities and water bodies around their mines and processing facilities.

Pini Althaus:

We have standards here in the United States, and I think what we need to do is make it easier for companies to mine, while at the same time protecting the environment. And there are ways to do that. And we're definitely seeing buy-in from Congress, from both sides, with regards to looking how we can stand up a secure supply chain. And, obviously under the Obama administration, they had very strict regulations when it comes to mining. And that's changed under the Trump administration. Hopefully what we start to see is some normal middle ground that'll allow other projects to come online.

Ryan Morfin:

And typically in these rare earth mines, is it amalgamation of different minerals that are all consolidated together and you have to separate them out? Or do you ever find pure play, Europium, I can't even pronounce some of these. Gadolinium, Cerium. I mean, are they all mixed together and you've got to filter and sift them through, or are they pure play mines?

Pini Althaus:

No, they're generally they have a mix. So they're polymetallic projects. They have a number of different materials. Some projects, you more to what we call the light rare earths like MP in California or Linus in Australia. Our project is actually on the opposite end of the spectrum. We have a very high concentration of heavy rare earths. That being said, we do have to go through a process of separating these materials. But the case of our project where we've got 30 materials. We're not going to produce 30 materials. We're not going to market 30 materials. So what we're doing is we're focusing on the key materials that are marketable, that we need for permanent magnets, lithium as well, and working on the separation and the optimization of those materials in particular. But we're all faced with the same processing challenges and that is something that can't be set.

Pini Althaus:

There's no easy way to do this. There are different technologies that have been used in different parts of the world. So predominantly there's a process called solvent extraction, but it's big, it's bulky, it's not benign. It's a bespoke solution for one particular project. So it doesn't work for feedstock from other projects. What we've done is we're using a processing technology that's actually been around since the 1940s. It was part of the Manhattan Project. It's called continuous ion exchange. In fact, the Chinese use it to increase the purities from 99.99 to four nines, five nines, and even six nines. So for some applications you require higher purity levels. It's a far easier processing method to scale up and to take feedstock from other projects. In fact, we've demonstrated for the Department of Energy that we can take coal waste from Pennsylvania and do high purity separation of rare earths using our processing methods. So it's not a step that can be skipped unless one needs to send it to China for processing, which is not going to help us with our objectives here.

Ryan Morfin:

How many other, we'll call it, going concerns on any other businesses that are doing this, that are trying to, I guess, start the development of these mines. Are you guys one of a few or are you one of many? And is it an international or just a US game? Who's leading the charge at going after this?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah, well, I'd say the Australians are leading it outside of China right now. You've got some really good projects in Australia. Again, more skewed toward the light rare earths. There's one more heavy rare earth project in Australia, which is not yet producing. The United States, you've got MP Materials, you've got Ucore in Alaska, you've got the Bear Lodge project in Wyoming, which is also another light rare earth project. So as far as a heavy rare earth project that looks like it will come online in the near term, that would be our project. In Canada there are a couple of projects there as well, and again, more skewed toward the light rare earths. But we really need to get as many of these projects online as possible. Because again, I don't see it as competition. We all have a problem doing supply agreements or offtake agreements for our materials.

Pini Althaus:

In fact, one of the things that we're going to have to consider is looking at potentially scaling up our production, based on the demand that we're already starting to see. And I think other companies would find that as well. So it's all about the economics of the project. You have projects that were economically viable back in 2012 or rare earth prices with 35% or so higher than they are today, and are not necessarily viable today. So that's the challenge as well, economically viable projects. And we've got to get as many of them online as possible. It takes many, many years. I mean, our project has had over $70 million put into it to get to where we are today, and we're close to getting to the production scenario. It all revolves around processing at this point in time.

Pini Althaus:

We'd be very happy to see another couple of projects come online, because this is extremely important for national security and for the economy as well. I mean, if you think about it, Ryan, if you've got a billion dollars of rare earth materials, that translates into a trillion dollars or I should say trillions of dollars of finished product. So you've got a magnet in your phone there that's worth a couple of dollars and the cell phone's a thousand dollars. And electric vehicles and defense applications even more.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah, everyone has one of these iPhones now, and there's tremendous amounts of rare earth on the circuit boards here. And I think people take it for granted that that supply chain is not secure right now. So one question for you, there's talk of this maybe medium term to longterm, but there's talk about mining in space. Do you think that's a feasible option in the longterm, medium term? What are your thoughts on that?

Pini Althaus:

No, that's just ridiculous. I mean, we're trying to find ways to make mining on earth economically viable. I think the cost of going up to space would be more than what our capex will be bringing our entire project into production. I mean, we've got about a 350 to $400 million capex to bring 130 year mine life into production. I'm not an aerospace expert, but I think sending a rocket, building a rocket ship and sending it up, I think maybe on the fuel alone, you could bring a couple of projects into production. So unless we have a fortunate situation or an asteroid lands on earth, and fortunate if it lands somewhere where we don't care, I don't see how that happens. And if it's big enough, it's a problem as well. It's nonsense. And even, options aside of the deep sea mining for rare earths, I mean, you've got all sorts of environmental issues around that as well. I think we need to look at projects that we can bring online, that can be done so in an economic way, that can be done so in an environmentally responsible way.

Pini Althaus:

I mean, one of the things that we've done at our project is we've got in excess of 60% of the materials that have come out around top, will have a clean green energy applicability to them. So we're using the benign processing method. We're going to be using renewable energy on site. In fact, we will likely be putting a solar farm on site as well. We've talked to a couple of companies that have approached us about that, and we'll be a net producer of power for the surrounding area. So there are ways to do it which don't affect the environment. Obviously if there's a project that's situated on a sensitive area, that's a unique situation for that specific project. We've seen it with the Pebble project, which is not a rare earth project. The Pebble project in Alaska where their environmental concerns is we've been recognized by both Republicans and Democrats, but we have to be reasonable about the projects that don't have environmental concerns.

Ryan Morfin:

So Pini, in season two, we ask all of our guests a series of six questions. They're usually, yes, no questions, but trying to take a survey of our conversations. And if you want to add a little context to the yes or no, feel free, but here goes the first question. If there was a COVID vaccine available today, would you take it?

Pini Althaus:


Ryan Morfin:

Who do you think is going to win the election?

Pini Althaus:

Which election?

Ryan Morfin:

The US election.

Pini Althaus:

Well, I think it looks like Joe Biden's going to win it, but I think what happens, if we go past January six from my understanding is that the house will vote on it and it's one vote per state. But I don't know if I see it getting there at this point in time. I really don't have a crystal ball.

Ryan Morfin:

Third question. What type of economic recovery are we in? What type of shape is it taking? A V-shape, W, U, L?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah, I think 2021 is going to be challenging. I think we've been, and rightly so. I mean, we've had no choice as of almost every other country. We've been printing money for the past year because of COVID. And I think we've got to brace ourselves that, at some point in time, the chickens come home to roost. It was a necessary step. People needed it on an individual level. Businesses needed it as well, but I think we've got to do whatever we can to stimulate the economy, give people confidence to go out and work again, employ people. So I think we've got to watch ourselves, especially in 2021. And I have some concerns, but long-term, I think the approach in the United States is a healthy one.

Ryan Morfin:

During lockdown this summer and quarantine, was there anything in particular that you accomplished that you're particularly proud of?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah. A great amount of family time, which, if you would've asked me a few years ago if I could sit at home and be at home for six months, I would have told you absolutely not. I wouldn't be able to do it for six days, but it has... I'm sure it's done this with a lot of families as well. It's brought families together. We had a baby actually last year on Thanksgiving. So I was doing a lot of travel at the time and thought I wouldn't get to see my daughter in her first year or couple of years too often. And being home with her every day is actually been just the most amazing experience. So thankful at least for some silver lining in COVID.

Ryan Morfin:

Are there any silver linings that you see in the economy going into 2021?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah, I think we've gone through an absolute beating and it looks like we've got the ability to come out of it. And I think that's a testament to how strong the economy was built up in the years preceding COVID. So overall I remain an optimist. I mean, we are a country built on opportunity and going out and making it happen. And we're not a socialist country sitting and waiting for people to send us paychecks or wealth distribution or anything like that. I think the American dream still lives on. I think if you go out and you're willing to work and put your head to it and heart in it, I think we do have the ability to climb out of it. So if we look at what the economy is doing over the past few weeks, it looks like it's starting to rebound. And to me, that's assuring because it could go completely one way as well.

Ryan Morfin:

And the last question is, is there anything that you're watching, or listening to, or reading today that has been impactful on your thinking that you'd like to share with our audience?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah, that's a good question. I think it's been more personal stories. The news, I sort of take that in context or with more than a grain of salt. In some cases stay off the news channels for a number of days at a time, it became quite repetitive. But I think on the personal side, talking to friends, my family's all back home in Australia, they've just come out of 110 day lockdown, which we can't relate to that. It's been very trying on them and seeing the fortitude that they've had to come out of that and stay intact. I think the mental health issues that will come out of COVID are going to have a far longer effect than the economic issues. I think we're going to have to focus on mental health issues in this country for a long time to come.

Pini Althaus:

The impact on kids has been significant with regards to lockdown or remote schooling, et cetera. But to see people come through it. I think it's a testament to people in general and to the country and other countries as well, to see got that fortitude and survival instinct to try to get through whatever adversity we can. So hearing the personal stories, the challenges that people have gone through, I think it's made me a lot more aware of things that I have to be thankful for and where we can help out other people as well. I think we have to be united going forward because there are things...

Pini Althaus:

I think one of the things that COVID has shown us is we can get into this complacency and life goes on and we go one day to the next. And all of a sudden we get hit by something that affects everybody equally. I mean, COVID, whilst there were groups of people, whether it was the elderly or people with underlying health conditions, that got hit the worst. I mean, we all got hit in some form or another. So really, this should be something that unites us, not divides us.

Ryan Morfin:

Well, Pini, I appreciate you coming on today to talk to us a little bit about the supply chain crimp on rare earth and we'll definitely keep an eye on it and would love to have you back in the future.

Pini Althaus:

Thank you, Ryan. Thanks for having me.

Ryan Morfin:

Absolutely. Thank you. Bye-bye. Thanks for watching Non-Beta Alpha. And before we go, please remember to like, and subscribe on Apple podcasts and our YouTube channel. This is Non-Beta Alpha, and now you know.


The unique history of a Maryland based distillery and craft secrets on how to make great American Bourbon w/ Admiral Scott Sanders Founder of Tobacco Barn Distillery

The unique history of a Maryland based distillery and craft secrets on how to make great American Bourbon w/ Admiral Scott Sanders Founder of Tobacco Barn Distillery

The unique history of a Maryland based distillery and craft secrets on how to make great American Bourbon w/ Admiral Scott Sanders Founder of Tobacco Barn Distillery

read more

Want to join our show?

Would you like to be a guest on the Non-Beta Alpha Podcast? Please click below and let us know that you are interested in being a guest on the podcast and we will get back to you shortly.

Skip to content