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MEI Online: Environmental Issues: Latest News: November 7th 2011

 
 

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:: Critical Metals in Strategic Energy Technologies

The Institute for Energy and Transport of the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission has conducted a study to assess whether there could be any potential bottlenecks to the deployment of low-carbon energy technologies in the EU due to the shortage of certain metals. The study examined the use of metals in the six low-carbon energy technologies of the Strategic Energy Technologies (SET)-Plan, namely: nuclear, solar, wind, bioenergy, carbon capture and storage and the electricity grid.

The study concluded that 5 metals, namely tellurium, indium, gallium, neodymium and dysprosium, are at a particularly high risk, with special relevance to the wind and photovoltaic energy generation technologies.

In recent years, there has been a rapid growth in demand for many metals, with some compounded by the political risks associated with the geographical concentration of their supply. This has led to much concern worldwide, but especially in the EU, where many hi-tech metals rely almost one hundred percent on import. As a consequence, the JRC conducted a study in cooperation with Oakdene Hollins (UK) and The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (NL), to assess whether there could be any potential bottlenecks to the deployment of low-carbon energy technologies in the EU due to the shortage of certain metals.

In particular, the study examined the use of metals in the six low-carbon energy technologies of SET-Plan, namely: nuclear, solar, wind, bioenergy, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and the electricity grid. By analysing the average annual demand for metals up to 2020 and 2030 and comparing to the respective global production volume in 2010, 14 metals were identified that will require 1% or more (and in some cases, much more) of current world supply per annum. These 14 metals, in order of decreasing demand, are tellurium, indium, tin, hafnium, silver, dysprosium, gallium, neodymium, cadmium, nickel, molybdenum, vanadium, niobium and selenium.

The 14 metals were then scrutinised in more detail in terms of their risks of meeting the anticipated demand by analysing the likelihood of rapid growth in future global demand, the limitations to expanding supply in the short to medium term, and the concentration of supply and political risks associated with key suppliers. In particular, the former three are especially applicable to photovoltaics, where, if there is, as projected, a greater shift towards CdTe and CIGS thin film technologies, then this could considerably increase the annual demand-to-supply for tellurium (up to 48%), indium (up to 32%) and gallium (around 8%).

Furthermore, the latter two metals, i.e. neodymium and dysprosium (both rare earth metals), are applicable to wind energy and the projected shift away from electromagnetic systems towards permanent magnetic-based direct drive systems would be to increase their demand to around 4% of current world supply. The report also explored potential mitigation strategies, ranging from increasing European primary production and by-product separation, encouraging re-use, recycling and waste reduction, and examining their substitution potential.

 

 

   

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