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article imageSourcing material for a clean energy future

By Ken Hanly     Feb 16, 2019 in Environment
Even many politicians are now stressing the importance of transitioning to clean energy. This means more solar panels, large-scale batteries, electric vehicles (EVs) and wind turbines. It means more demand for materials that make such technology possible.
Materials for the new technology
Some materials such as silicon in solar panels are quite plentiful and increased demand is unlikely to be a problem as Marco Raugel an expert in the sustainability of new technology, at Oxford Brookes University notes. However, we may need to shift our supply chains for other commodities such as neodymium for wind turbines, lithium and cobalt for batteries, and copper for most new technology.
Though the demand for more materials will usually involve more mining with an increased environmental impact, experts agree that the benefits far outweigh the costs including to the environment. However, it is worth thinking about how we will be able to get the materials needed to produce a clean energy future. This article looks at four different materials: neodymium, copper, lithium and cobalt.
Although neodymium is classed as a rare earth element is actually rather common. Wikipedia describes neodymium as follows: "Neodymium is a chemical element with symbol Nd and atomic number 60. It is a soft silvery metal that tarnishes in air. Neodymium was discovered in 1885 by the Austrian chemist Carl Auer von Welsbach. It is present in significant quantities in the ore minerals monazite and bastnäsite. Neodymium is not found naturally in metallic form or unmixed with other lanthanides, and it is usually refined for general use. Although neodymium is classed as a rare earth, it is a fairly common element, no rarer than cobalt, nickel, or copper, and is widely distributed in the Earth's crust.[4] Most of the world's commercial neodymium is mined in China."
Neodymium is used in coloring glass and in lasers but it is also a key component of strong magnets. Frances Wall a professor of applied mineralogy at the University of Exeter's School of Mines says: “There really isn’t anything to compete with neodymium for magnets. They’re just by far the best for the application.” When combined with iron and boron neodymium makes strong magnets that are important for generators in wind turbines, and motors in electric vehicles.
The problem with neodymium supplies is that 85 percent of what is mined comes from a few mines in China. Even the few mines that exist elsewhere send the ore to China to process, even the US Mountain Pass rare earth mine in California. Wall notes that a big problem with developing more neodymium mines is funding. As demand increases presumably investors will see investing in new mines and refining capacity as profitable.
Although copper is not scarce, it is required in most new technoloy, and so a lot of it will be needed as it is conducts electricity amazingly well. There is no better alternative yet. The problem is to find copper in significant amounts near the surface.
Mary Poulton, of the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources at the University of Arizona notes that it can be difficult to find deposits and then it takes ages to get the proper permits and start production. She claims that for the most part that present mines are of deposits found the late 1800s and many have been mined ever since then.
She says that the best place to look for new deposits is in areas where copper had previously been discovered. There is some new technology being used to extract copper.
In two areas of Arizona, a new technique called in situ leaching is used. There are no holes dug. Wells are built and then a weak acid solution is pumped into the ground which dissolves the copper out of the minerals. The solution is pumped out of the well and processed to get out the copper. Fresh water is flushed through the well to clean out the acid as much as possible, however some remains and cause some disturbance to the land.
In both Western Australia and South America in remote areas, robots are being used.
A massive renewable energy infrastructure will require significant storage capacity to go along with it. People require electricity even though the wind is not blowing or the sun shining. One solution to this problem are giant lithium-ion batteries such as are being tested in South Australia at present.
Lithium is a basic material in virtually all recharcheable batteries. Andrew Miller of Benmark Mineral Intelligence says there are two ways of obtaining lithium at present. One way is to evaporate out of brine as it done in Chile's Salar de Atacama lake one of the world's largest suppliers of lithium. However, lithium can also be extracted from spodumene, a hard rock mostly found in Australia. Miller notes that spodumene mines are popping up in many places as the lithium market grows. He says that although South America and Australia will remain prime sources, mines will open in countries such as in the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, and even the Czech Republic. Consumers of lithium would prefer multiple sources rather than being dependent on a few.
Cobalt is another key material in rechargeable batteries. However, Caspar Rawles of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence claims it will be difficult for any country other than the Democratic Republic of Congo(DRC) to dominate. Cobalt is one of the most expensive materials in batteries. It is often mined in the Congo under conditions that violate human rights. Just in 2018 fully 70 percent of cobalt came from the DRC. The country has been criticized for using children as young as six to work in the lithium mines. While scientists are rushing to manufacture a cobalt-free battery, so far this has not happened. Hopefully, this will be achieved in the future.
More about Clean energy, neodymium, Cobalt, Lithium
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