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Energy Critical Element

Critical Minerals, Elements, Metals, Materials

In this article I am going to take a look at three reports covering what the US and Europe consider critical or strategic minerals and materials.

In its first Critical Materials Strategy, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) focused on materials used in four clean energy technologies:

  • wind turbines: permanent magnets
  • electric vehicles:€“ permanent magnets & advanced batteries
  • solar cells: thin film semi conductors
  • energy efficient lighting: phosphors

The DOE says they selected these particular components for two reasons:

  1. Deployment of the clean energy technologies that use them is projected to increase, perhaps significantly, in the short, medium and long term
  2. Each uses significant quantities of rare earth metals or other key materials

In its report the DOE provided data for nine rare earth elements: yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, samarium, europium, terbium and dysprosium as well as indium, gallium, tellurium, cobalt and lithium.

Five of the rare earth metals, dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium€“ as well as indium, were assessed as most critical in the short term. The DOE defines “€œcriticality”€ as a measure that combines importance to the clean energy economy and risk of supply disruption.

Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies

A Report by the APS Panel on Public Affairs and the Materials Research Society coined the term “€œenergy-critical element”€ (ECE) to describe a class of chemical elements that currently appear critical to one or more new, energy related technologies.

“Energy-related systems are typically materials intensive. As new technologies are widely deployed, significant quantities of the elements required to manufacture them will be needed. However, many of these unfamiliar elements are not presently mined, refined, or traded in large quantities, and, as a result, their availability might be constrained by many complex factors. A shortage of these energy-critical elements (ECEs) could significantly inhibit the adoption of otherwise game-changing energy technologies. This, in turn, would limit the competitiveness of U.S. industries and the domestic scientific enterprise and, eventually, diminish the quality of life in the United States.”

According to the APS and MRS report several factors can contribute to limiting the domestic availability of an ECE:

The element may not be abundant in the earth’€™s crust or might not be concentrated by geological processes

An element might only occur in a few economic deposits worldwide, production might be dominated by and, therefore, subject to manipulation by one or more countries – the United States already relies on other countries for more than 90% of most of the ECEs identified in the report

Many ECEs have, up to this point, been produced in relatively small quantities as by-products of primary metals mining and refining. Joint production complicates attempts to ramp up output by a large factor.

Because they are relatively scarce, extraction of ECEs often involves processing large amounts of material, sometimes in ways that do unacceptable environmental damage

The time required for production and utilization to adapt to fluctuations in price and availability of ECEs is long, making planning and investment difficult

This report was limited to elements that have the potential for major impact on energy systems and for which a significantly increased demand might strain supply, causing price increases or unavailability, thereby discouraging the use of some new technologies.

The focus of the report was on energy technologies with the potential for large-scale deployment so the elements they listed are energy critical:

  • Gallium, germanium, indium, selenium, silver, and tellurium employed in advanced photovoltaic solar cells, especially thin film photovoltaics.
  • Dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium, samarium and cobalt€“ used in high-strength permanent magnets for many energy related applications, such as wind turbines and hybrid automobiles.
  • Gadolinium (most REEs made this list) for its unusual paramagnetic qualities and europium and terbium for their role in managing the color of fluorescent lighting. Yttrium, another REE, is an important ingredient in energy-efficient solid-state lighting.
  • Lithium and lanthanum, used in high performance batteries.
  • Helium, required in cryogenics, energy research, advanced nuclear reactor designs, and manufacturing in the energy sector.
  •  Platinum, palladium, and other PGEs, used as catalysts in fuel cells that may find wide applications in transportation. Cerium, a REE, is also used as an auto-emissions catalyst.
  • Rhenium, used in high performance alloys for advanced turbines.

 The third report I looked at, “Critical Raw Materials for the EU” listed 14 raw materials which are deemed critical to the European Union (EU): antimony, beryllium, cobalt, fluorspar, gallium, germanium, graphite, indium, magnesium, niobium, platinum group metals, rare earths, tantalum and tungsten.

€œRaw materials are an essential part of both high tech products and every-day consumer products, such as mobile phones, thin layer photovoltaics, Lithium-ion batteries, fibre optic cable, synthetic fuels, among others. But their availability is increasingly under pressure according to a report published today by an expert group chaired by the European Commission. In this first ever overview on the state of access to raw materials in the EU, the experts label a selection of 14 raw materials as “€œcritical”€ out of 41 minerals and metals analyzed. The growing demand for raw materials is driven by the growth of developing economies and new emerging technologies.

For the critical raw materials, their high supply risk is mainly due to the fact that a high share of the worldwide production mainly comes from a handful of countries, for example:

China: €“ Rare Earths Elements (REE)

Russia, South Africa:€“ Platinum Group Elements (PGE)

Democratic Republic of Congo:€“ Cobalt

All four of the following critical materials appear on each list:

  • Rare Earth Elements (REE)
  • Cobalt
  • Platinum Group Elements (PGE)
  • Lithium

The key issues in regards to critical metals are:

  • Finite resources
  • Chinese market dominance in many sectors
  • Long lead times for mine development
  • Resource nationalism/country risk
  • High project development cost
  • Relentless demand for high tech consumer products
  • Ongoing material use research
  • Low substitutability
  • Environmental crackdowns
  • Low recycling rates
  • Lack of intellectual knowledge and operational expertise in the west

 Certainly the rare earth elements, the platinum group of elements and lithium are going to continue receiving investor attention,€“ they are absolutely vital to the continuance of our modern lifestyle. But there are two metals increasingly on my radar screen, one is on all three above critical metals lists and the other soon will be when/if production increases, and in this authors opinion, that’€™s very possible.

Cobalt

A critical or strategic material is a commodity whose lack of availability during a national emergency would seriously affect the economic, industrial, and defensive capability of a country.

The French Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minires rates high tech metals as critical, or not, based on three criteria:

  • Possibility (or not) of substitution
  • Irreplaceable functionality
  • Potential supply risks

Many countries classify cobalt as a critical or a strategic metal.

 The US is the world’€™s largest consumer of cobalt and the US also considers cobalt a strategic metal. The US has no domestic production, the United States is 100% dependent on imports for its supply of primary cobalt,€“ currently about 15% of U.S. cobalt consumption is from recycled scrap, resulting in a net import reliance of 85%.

Although cobalt is one of the 30 most abundant elements within the earth’s crust it’s low concentration (.002%) means it’s usually produced as a by-product – cobalt is mainly obtained as a by-product of copper and nickel mining activities.

Scandium

Scandium is a soft, light metal that might have applications in the aerospace industry. With a cost approaching $300 per gram scandium is too expensive for widespread use. Scandium is a byproduct from the extraction of other elements, uranium mining, nickel and cobalt laterite mines and is sold as scandium oxide.

The absence of reliable, secure, stable and long term production has limited commercial applications of scandium in most countries. This is despite a comprehensive body of research and a large number of patents which identify significant benefits for the use of scandium over other elements.

Particularly promising are the properties of :

  • Stabilizing zirconia: Scandia stabilized zirconia has a growing market demand for use as a high efficiency electrolyte in solid oxide fuel cells
  • Scandium-aluminum alloys will be important in the manufacture of fuel cells
  • Strengthening aluminum alloys (0.5% scandium) that could replace entire fleets with much cheaper, lighter and stronger aircraft
  • Alloys of scandium and aluminum are used in some kinds of athletic equipment, such as aluminum baseball bats, bicycle frames and lacrosse sticks
  • Scandium iodide (ScI3) is added to mercury vapor lamps so that they will emit light that closely resembles sunlight

Conclusion

The REEs, PGEs, Lithium and Cobalt are all truly critical to the functioning of our modern society. It’€™s easy to see why they are classified as critical or strategic. Scandium will increasingly find its way into our everyday lives and undoubtedly take its place on the various critical metal lists.

Access to raw materials at competitive prices has become essential to the functioning of all industrialized economies. Cobalt is one of those raw materials, so too will be Scandium.

Are these two critical metals on your radar screen?

If not, maybe they should be.

Richard Mills – Ahead of the Herd | July 14, 2011