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(Nanowerk News) It is not just in laptop computers, mobile telephones and LED screens that scarce metals are to be found but also in solar cells, batteries for mobile technologies and many other similar applications. The rising demand for these metals increases the risk of a bottleneck in supplies.
Empa researchers and representatives from industry explained at the “Technology Briefing” why scarce metals are essential for many key technologies and how an impending scarcity might be avoided.
“There is no future without scarce metals!” This was the very clear message with which Peter Hofer, a member of Empa’s Board of Directors, greeted guests at the recent Technology Briefing on scarce metals held at the Empa Academy. After all, it is scarce metals in batteries and motors that keep electric vehicles rolling and which, in automobile catalytic converters, clean up the exhaust gases. Hofer again: “Materials with special properties are essential if we are to find solutions to the problems caused by our ever-increasing mobility requirements.”
The term scarce metals includes gallium, indium, cobalt and the platinum metals, in addition to the rare earth metals which are used (together with iron and boron), for example, to make the very strong magnets needed in wind turbines. And manufacturers like to use tantalum for the capacitors on mobile telephone printed circuit boards (PCBs) because this transition metal, when used in these tiny components, enables them to store and release large amounts of electrical energy. The demand is high, with more than 60 per cent of the tantalum mined being used for this application.
The darker side
But, as Patrick Wäger, the initiator of this Technology Briefing and an expert on scarce metals, explained, everything has a darker side to it. Raw materials which can only be mined and refined in a few countries, for which alternatives are not easy to find and which have a low rate of recycling must are considered to be critical. China, for example, almost completely controls the supply of rare earth metals from which high-performance permanent magnets are manufactured. Wäger, who is a staff member of Empa’s Technology and Society laboratory, added that by imposing export restrictions the Chinese government has forced prices to rise, leading to delivery bottlenecks. Currently great efforts are being made to reduce this dependency by expanding supply capacities outside of China, such as in the USA, Australia or Greenland – with implications also for the environment.
Tantalum, required for high-performance micro-capacitors, is viewed in the microelectronics industry as a material which is difficult to substitute, and to date it has not been possible to recover it from end-of-life products. Particularly worrying are the facts that tantalum is illegally mined in certain Central African countries under degrading conditions, and the profits from its sale are used to finance civil wars.
“Swiss companies also need to think closely about how they can reduce this dependency and avoid the possibility of delivery bottlenecks, ” remarked Jean-Philippe Kohl, the head of Swissmem’s Economic Policy Group. A recent survey of the industry association’s members in the Swiss mechanical engineering, electrical and metal sectors showed that every single company contacted used at least one of the critical raw materials. In order to protect themselves from possible shortages many of the companies had signed long-term delivery contracts with their suppliers. The others are cooperating with research institutions, either to develop alternative raw materials and technologies, or to optimize existing processes.
Alternatives from research labs
As an example of this approach, Stephan Buecheler explained how Empa’s Thin-Films and Photovoltaic laboratory was working to reduce the thickness of the critical tellurium layer in flexible solar cells which use cadmium telluride (CdTe) as the active material. Similarly, efforts are being made in solar cells based on copper-indium-gallium-diselenide (CIGS) to replace the critical indium oxide with zinc oxide. In making these changes no loss of performance is expected. Quite the opposite, in fact – the aim is to increase the efficiency of these devices by optimal use of raw materials and fast processes. Researchers have already shown that this is possible, having set a new efficiency record last year.
Again with the aim of reducing scarce metal usage, the institution’s Internal Combustion Engine laboratory has developed an extremely efficient and economic foam catalyst. Changing the form of the ceramic substrate has enabled the use of less of the noble metals palladium and rhodium in comparison to conventional catalysts. In collaboration with Empa’s Solid-State Chemistry and Catalysis laboratory, the motor scientists are conducting research work on regenerative exhaust gas catalysts which employed perovskites instead of scarce metals. The former are multifunctional metal oxides which, because of their special crystal structure, are capable of transforming heat directly into electrical energy.
The “recycling” challenge
Despite all the doom and gloom, we will not have to do without scarce metals entirely. As Heinz Boeni, head of the Technology and Society laboratory, maintained there is of course a reserve of scarce metals to be found in end-of-life electrical and electronic products. While natural primary deposits are being used up, the “anthropogenic” secondary deposits created by man are increasing continuously. In a ton of natural ore as mined there is typically about 5 g of gold. In a ton of discarded mobile telephones, on the other hand, there is about 280 g, while the same weight of scrap PCBs contains as much as 1.4 kg of the precious metal!
But recovering scarce metals is anything but easy. “You can’t just pull them out from electronic waste with a screwdriver and a hammer. The recovery process is at least as complex as the design and development of the old appliances themselves”, recycling expert Christian Hagelüken made clear. A large percentage of scarce metals are to be found in the form of very thin layers or mixed with other substances in the form of alloys, added Hagelüken, whose employer, Umicore, is one of the largest recycling companies involved in the recovery of precious metals from complex waste material. Recycling scarce metals demands the use of complicated recovery processes.
Furthermore, suitable recovery processes alone are not enough to guarantee high recycling rates. According to the experts it is necessary to keep an eye on the whole recycling chain, from collection, disassembly and sorting of the scrap to the actual recovery process itself. The greatest efforts are in vain if, as is the case in certain countries, end-of-life computers and other electronic appliances are exported to developing and threshold countries where the scarce metals are lost through the inappropriate treatment of the electronic waste, which also represents a danger to human health and the environment. Or, if with a mechanical disassembly - which is common today in Switzerland – the scarce metals are dissipated into fractions from which they cannot be recovered.
We begin 2012 similar to how we started 2011 when it comes to rare earth, rare technical metals and rare industrial metals. China has over 90% of production and refining. The US and EU governments are scrambling to legislate, source, produce, open and reopen mines. The West has decided to continue down the road of the idea that the markets will take care of the supply and price of these metals. What is alarming is how easily the West was lulled to sleep by China´s ability to supply the world its metals cheaply and efficiently. The West concentrated on making money trading stocks and futures that dealt with these commodities. China concentrated on building the most extensive mining industry in the history of man. Here in 2012 the Department of Energy in the USA has approved a spending bill that includes $20 Million to focus on the supply issues of these metals.
The metals I am speaking about are so vital to our everyday lives. These metals are found in your mobile phones, computers, LCD and LED TV´s, hybrid cars, solar power, wind power, nuclear power, efficient lighting and medical technologies. Here is a list of metals that have been deemed critical.
- Indium RIM (Solar, Mobile Phones, LCD)
- Tellurium RIM (Solar, Computers, Semi-conductors)
- Gallium RIM (Solar, Mobile Phones, LED´s, Fuel Cells)
- Hafnium RIM (Processors, Nuclear, Lighting, Plasma Cutting Tools)
- Tantalum RIM (Capacitors, Medical Implants, Mobile Phones, Nuclear)
- Tungsten RIM (Nuclear, Armaments, Aviation)
- Yttrium REE (Lighting, Medical Technology, Magnets in Hybrids)
- Neodymium REE (Magnets in Wind power, Super Magnets, Hybrid Vehicles)
- Dysprosium REE (Computers, Nuclear, Hybrid Vehicles)
- Europium REE (Lighting, LED´s, Lasers
- Lanthanum REE (Hybrid Vehicles, Magnets, Optics)
- Cerium REE (LED´s, Catalytic Converters, Magnets)
RIM=Rare Industrial Metal REE=Rare Earth Element
The supplies of these metals could hold back the production of green technologies. According to the latest report by the Department of Energy, ¨Supply challenges for five rare earth metals may affect clean energy technology deployment in the years ahead¨. If Green technology is to become main stream, the costs of these technologies have to reach cost parity with traditional energy sources. As long as there are serious supply issues with these metals the costs can´t reach these levels. The other option is finding alternatives like Graphene and Nanotechnologies.
The US and EU need supply chains of the metals that include both mining and refining of these metals. Relying on sovereign states for critical metals such as these, leave a nation vulnerable to outside influence in both politics and economics. Environmentalists have succeeded in influencing politicians to close mines throughout the West. Politicians have legislated the mining industry into the position it is in today. The Western nations must start now to build its supply chain or continue to be at the mercy of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations for its metal needs.
The best the West can do now is provide, enough metals to meet its own demands. China has reached a point where it can now demand that certain industries produce their products there. If a company decides to try to produce the product in another country China will make producing that item cost prohibitive outside of China by raising the prices of the metals.
The demand for the products these metals are used to produce, are showing few signs of slowing down even in a so-called recession. Governments are subsidizing Green technology, people are buying mobile phones across the planet and everybody wants a nice flat screen TV. Will 2012 pass without countries truly taking this opportunity to fix the problem or will they step up and make the hard decisions which can put the countries back in control over their own destiny?
A new JRC report revealed that five metals, essential for manufacturing low-carbon technologies, show a high risk of shortage. Reasons for this lie in Europe’s dependency on imports, increasing global demand, supply concentration and geopolitical issues.
Scientists at the JRC’s Institute for Energy and Transport (IET) examined the use of raw materials, especially metals, in the six priority low-carbon energy technologies of the Commission’s SET-Plan: nuclear, solar, wind, bio-energy, carbon capture and storage and electricity grids.
The findings were that a large-scale deployment of solar energy technologies, for example, will require half the current world supply of tellurium and 25% of the supply of indium. At the same time, the envisaged deployment of wind energy technology in Europe will require large amounts of neodymium and dysprosium for permanent magnet generators.
The report considers possible strategies to avoid or mitigate shortage of these metals, for instance through recycling, increasing Europe’s own production of such metals and by developing of alternative technologies that rely on more common materials.
In the near future the JRC will conduct similar studies on other energy technologies that also use critical metals, such as electric vehicles, electricity storage, lighting and fuel cells.
By: Peggy Greb
The relative risks to the supply of some of Earth’s rarest elements have been detailed in a new list published by the British Geological Survey (BGS).
So-called “technology metals” like indium and niobium are extracted from the Earth and are used in a wide range of modern digital devices and green technologies.
They are therefore increasingly in demand from global industries.
The list highlights 52 elements most at risk from “supply disruption”.
Incorporating information about each metal’s abundance in the Earth, the distribution of its deposits, and the political stability of the country in which it is found, the list ranks these highly desired elements on a relative scale.
Speaking at the British Science Festival in Bradford, Andrew Bloodworth from the BGS explained that “while we won’t run out of these metals any time soon, the risks to supply are mostly human”.
Geopolitics, resource nationalism, accidents, and the lengthy delay between the discovery of a resource and its efficient extraction are all factors that could threaten the supply of the metals on which our modern technology has come to rely.
This is an especially important factor, given the notable monopoly that certain countries have on supply.
For example, 97% of all rare earth elements (REEs), including neodynium and scandium, are produced in China.
Pace of demand
Antimony, the element most “at risk”, is used extensively for fire proofing, but is deposited by hot fluids inside the Earth’s crust and extracted mostly in China.
In fact, China dominates global production of all the elements on the BGS list, being responsible for extraction of over 50% of them.
Mr Bloodworth said that he hoped this new list would help to inform policy makers of the need to diversify supply sources, as well as making manufacturers and the public aware of where these critical metals come from.
There are many more locations on Earth where these critical metals can be mined, including varied geological deposits from Southern Africa, Australia, Brazil, and the US. Professor Frances Wall of the Camborne School of Mines said that mining these alternative deposits would “take away the monopoly of current suppliers of these metals”.
In the move towards a more low-carbon economy, digital and renewable energy technologies rely heavily on metals which, just 10 years ago, would have been of little interest to industry.
Today, these elements are ubiquitous, being used widely in smart mobile devices, flat screens, wind turbines, electric cars, rechargeable batteries and many others.
Mobile phones embrace the use of these technology metals, with lithium batteries, indium in the screen, and REEs in the circuitry.
With over 50 million new phones being made every year, the “volume of technology metals required is astonishing and the pace of demand is not letting up” said Alan McLelland of the National Metals Technology Centre.
Recycling of the metals used in phones is currently too expensive and energy-intensive, but Mr McLelland hopes that the risks outlined in the BGS list will alert the manufacturers to the need to make the embedded metals more accessible for recycling.
As the supply and demand of the elements change, the BGS anticipates the list being updated annually.
By Leila Battison