Renewables Need More Metals

There are many challenges in the push for a carbon-free world: integrating new technologies into our existing energy infrastructure, creating balanced government incentives for green tech, inventing better renewables in the first place... the list goes on. One thing that is often overlooked, however, is that many of these new technologies require a dwindling natural resource: rare earth metals.

These metals, such as tellurium, gallium, and neodymium, are very rare--only a few dozen parts per million in the Earth's crust--but they are crucial for everything from solar panels to batteries. "The elements exhibit unique conducting, luminescence, and magnetic and electrical storage charge properties which make them appropriate for these technologies," Dr. Saleem Ali said in an email. Ali is a professor at the University of Delaware who studies environmental conflicts, especially those that crop up around how we mine and use minerals.

Dr. Saleem Ali at the entrance to China's rare earth mining district. Credit: Dr. Saleem Ali.

Dr. Saleem Ali at the entrance to China's rare earth mining district. Credit: Dr. Saleem Ali.

Ali is concerned that the current way we extract and use mineral resources is not sustainable if we want to advance toward a carbon-free world. Last week, he was the lead author on a Nature paper that argued for a concerted international effort to manage mineral mining and usage. At stake are not just rare earth elements--copper, cobalt, lithium, and most other metals are at risk. In their analysis, Ali and his coauthors found that, given our current and projected supply of metals, something is going to have to change if we are to meet the sustainability goals laid out in by the UN, which include the Paris Climate Agreement. "Recycling can't meet current demands for most metals except perhaps for cobalt and lithium once we have enough stock of batteries to recycle," Ali wrote me. "Without enough stock we have to mine."

Mining companies went on a spree last decade, when China was experiencing a massive infrastructure boom and needed the metals. Now, China has slowed down. The global metal market is oversupplied for the near future and few companies are investing in the expensive and time-consuming process of developing a new mining site. But what happens when the current supply of metals runs out and we don't have those new mines to keep up with demand? We'll have bigger problems than a slowdown in rare earth metals for low-carbon technologies; basic infrastructure will suffer.

A way forward, proposed by Ali and his coauthors, is through international private-public partnerships modeled after something like the European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials. An organization like this, it is argued, will be able to help industry plan for longer-term issues that might arise, creating a universally agreed-upon framework on how we extract, use, and reuse the minerals we pull from the ground. Right now, this is done only on a national or regional level.

It might not seem international cooperation is likely, considering the isolationist tendencies brewing in Washington, but Ali remains optimistic. "The defense establishment needs metals more than anyone else, and this administration seems to like D.O.D. spending," Ali wrote me. "The Pentagon is the largest user of metals and fuel in the United States. This current administration will get a demand side assessment on metals from D.O.D. as well. I am sure they will have to think about this as well. DARPA is likely to get more funding too. We just have to ensure that this is channeled towards broader societal planning goals for metals rather than only defense needs."

And if the Department of Defense stimulates a discussion that eventually helps us reach Paris Climate Agreement goals, Ali has one thing to say: "Let's go for it."



Banner photo credit: USAF.