For a transition to green energy technologies, raw materials play a major role. As with other high-tech products, increasing quantities and more and more different metals are required for renewable energy systems and storage systems. But which ones could lead to problems and how can we solve them?
Wind power is one of the fastest-growing technologies when it comes to renewable technologies and together with solar power, it will provide a significant amount of our energy in the future. Since wind and solar are strongly dependent on the weather, day, and season, technologies like large-scale Li-ion batteries and fuel cells are necessary to compensate for fluctuations from production and demand in the power grid. Geothermal energy will also play an important role. All of these technologies require raw materials that often struggle with problems in procurement, extraction, and availability.
There is no energy transition without raw materials!
Without a secure supply of raw materials, the expansion targets for energy generation and storage from renewable energy sources are in danger. Fewer and fewer actors control ever-increasing amounts of raw materials. Individual countries and companies can use their market power to make access to important raw materials more difficult, cancel supply, or drastically influence the price. For example, 75 percent of the worldwide produced palladium, which finds an application in EV batteries is produced by Russia and South Africa. Further, over 86 percent of the world’s rare earths production is in China. That is too much of a dependency.
A few details about wind turbines.
A wind turbine is made up of thousands of components (tower, base, rotor, turbine, cables, transformer, electronic parts, …). These components are made up of lots of different materials and some of them will have a future supply risk.
Used materials in wind turbines (varies for on- and offshore use):
- Steel, polymers (also glass-polymer composites), and concrete build the main structure of wind turbines.
- Aluminum, depending on the turbine type.
- Chromium, manganese, and nickel for alloy-steels.
- Zinc for anti-corrosion protection
- Boron, dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium, and terbium for permanent magnet generators.
- Copper for generators and cabling.
Estimated the overall material use for wind turbines will be around two to three times the current use in 2030 and around four to five times the current use in 2050. This will not be the same for all used materials and better use of materials and better efficiency needs to be considered.
Especially Dysprosium, Neodymium, Praseodymium, and Terbium will be at supply risk in the next years.
How is it with PV/solar?
There are different types/technologies at the market such as wafer-based crystalline silicon, amorphous silicon, copper indium gallium diselenide, cadmium telluride, …
Used materials in PV/Solar (varies for types/technologies):
- Plastic for protection.
- Aluminum for frames, and structure.
- Glass for substrates and protection.
- Copper for wires, cabling, transformers.
- Steel and concrete for the base.
- Silicon, selenium, gallium, indium, tellurium, cadmium, germanium, and silver depending on types/technologies.
Demands will vary greatly between the types/technologies because they are dependent on the market share of each type/technology. It is not possible to say which of them will be used most in the future.
Especially germanium, tellurium, indium, selenium, and silicon there will be at supply risk in the following years. I guess if there will be a huge shortage of one specific material the use of the type/technology will vary a lot depending on the rare material. As with wind turbines, there will be a better use of materials and a better efficiency in the future.
Further applications of critical raw materials:
The platinum group elements platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, and iridium are used in fuel cells and as catalysts. Lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, and palladium are also required for electric vehicle batteries. Such technology elements are also required in smartphones, computers, medical devices, and many other applications.
What could be the solution to this problem?
- Strengthening the domestic raw materials sector.
- Universal and high environmental standards could promote a fair competition. This applies to both mining and recycling.
- Recycling and resource efficiency must be increased and supported and promoted through political measures.
- One must not completely neglect fossil fuels in the future either, because if there is a shortage of some risk elements, these could temporarily gain importance again until other solutions are found.
Which elements do you think will be subject to a high supply risk in the future?