JRC study finds 8 metals for low-carbon energy technologies at risk of shortages; EVs, wind and solar, and lighting the applications of most concern
A new European Joint Research Centre (JRC) study looking into the supply of raw materials for the manufacture of low-carbon energy technologies found that eight metals were at high risk of shortages. The applications, i.e. technologies, of particular concern as a result are electric vehicles, wind and solar energy, and lighting. The risk arises from EU dependency on imports, growing demand worldwide and geopolitical reasons.
The study builds on a 2011 effort which looked into the six key applications of the Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan: wind, solar, nuclear fission, bioenergy, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and the electricity grid. In the new study, these were re-assessed and considered along with 11 other technologies—including fuel cells, electricity storage, electric vehicles and lighting—treated in the new report, this time evaluated on the expected supplies of the metals and not on the current situation as in the first report.
The SET Plan was launched in 2008 with the objective to accelerate the development and deployment of cost-effective low carbon technologies.
The second study examined a total of 60 metals, i.e. metallic elements, metallic minerals and metalloids; only iron, aluminium and radioactive elements (used as fuel in nuclear plants) were specifically excluded. Graphite was also included, reflecting its status as one of the critical raw materials identified by the EU Raw Materials Initiative.
Where possible, the study models the implications for materials demand as a result of the scenarios described in the EU Energy Roadmap 2050. Consequently, the results obtained in the first study were updated to reflect the data that has become available in the roadmap.
The study used a bottom-up approach, compiling an inventory of all metals used in each technology. For each technology, an appropriate functional unit (e.g. kg/MW) was been used, along with forecasts of demand.
Among the eight elements classified as “critical” are six rare earth metals (dysprosium, europium, terbium, yttrium, praseodymium and neodymium), and the two metals gallium and tellurium. Four metals (graphite, rhenium, indium and platinum) are found to have a medium-to-high risk, suggesting that the market conditions for these metals should be monitored in case they deteriorate thereby increasing the risk of supply-chain bottlenecks.
Dysprosium was identified as being the most at risk, as the EU is expected to require 25% of the expected world supply in 2020-2030 to meet the Union’s demand for hybrid and electric vehicles and wind turbines.
Other important materials and their associated key technology include lithium, graphite neodymium, praseodymium and cobalt (for hybrid and electric vehicles); tellurium, indium, tin and gallium (for solar energy); platinum (for fuel cells); indium, terbium, europium and gallium (for lighting); neodymium and praseodymium (for wind) and indium (for nuclear).
The EU demand for lithium is projected at nearly 15% of the global supply, while that of graphite at 10%.
A number of uncertainties can alter the situation, the report noted, including the demand for low-carbon technologies; the technology mix between competing sub-technologies; the materials composition and associated quantities of some components; the substitutability of key materials in certain technologies; and the projected supply of various metals to 2020 and 2030.
The researchers investigated the sensitivity to these sources of uncertainty in depth for hybrid and electric vehicles and lighting. For hybrid and electric vehicles, this highlighted the sensitivity of the results to widely different demand forecasts. The technology mix between permanent magnet motors and induction systems was also found to be a key sensitivity, as to some extent was the choice of battery chemistry. For lighting, a key sensitivity was found to be the timing and penetration of LED lighting versus phosphor lighting.
As in the first report, measures to mitigate the supply-chain risks for the critical metals are considered. These fall into three categories: increasing primary supply, reuse/recycling and substitution.
Increasing primary supply. The development of rare earth mines within Europe is in its early stages. The Norra Kärr deposit in Sweden is relatively attractive given its high proportion of heavy rare earths. An alternative option in the short term is to process rare earth concentrates from tailings, by-product sources or from mines opened outside Europe. For gallium and tellurium, the data indicate that Europe already has a degree of self-sufficiency; however, the report noted, opportunities may exist to create further refineries to boost recovery of these materials.
Reuse/recycling and waste reduction. Significant improvements have already been made in the recycling of post-industrial waste streams such as magnet, semi-conductor and photovoltaic scrap. Recycling post-consumer waste streams is more challenging due to issues with collecting, sorting and pre-processing and the long lifetimes of certain product groups. Nevertheless, there are short term opportunities and initiatives for the recovery of rare earth magnets from hard disk drives and rare earth phosphors from lighting.
Substitution. The increased price of these materials has resulted in significant reduction in materials intensity for some applications, such as the reduction of dysprosium and neodymium in rare earth magnets, of terbium and europium within rare earth phosphors and the minimisation of the thickness of tellurium within thin film solar panels.
Systemic approaches to materials substitution are also being widely considered including alternative motors technologies e.g. asynchronous or switch reluctance; and alternative lighting technologies e.g. LEDs, OLEDs and quantum dots. There are also opportunities to substitute the current use of critical materials from traditional applications where other materials are suitable e.g. eliminate tellurium from steel alloys.
In addition, the report identified a number of topics as possibly meriting further research, but which could not be considered within the immediate scope of this study. These include:
The implications of missing or exceeding targets for the uptake of low carbon technologies.
Research into the implications for raw materials of continued improvements of internal combustion engines, including advanced lead acid batteries and catalytic convertors.
Development of new and more detailed scenarios for the uptake and technology mix of options for stationary energy storage in particular.
Similar studies could be undertaken for other sectors such as defense and aerospace.
An investigation into the location of production of the energy technologies and the stage of the value chain conducted within Europe.
Improving statistics on the contribution of recycling to world production for a number of metals.
An assessment of the appropriate scale and location of recycling technologies.
The purity of the raw materials required for different decarbonization technologies.
Contribution of greater traceability and transparency to reducing raw materials supply risk.
The report also cautions against overstating bottlenecks due to the risks of raw material shortages for key technologies.
This is because there are still many years before the large uptake of some technologies and in the coming years, there are numerous options that will become available to mitigate the identified risks.—Moss et al.
The JRC is the European Commission’s in-house science service.
Moss, R.L. et al. (2013) Critical Metals in the Path towards the Decarbonisation of the EU Energy Sector