Many rare metals are needed to make photovoltaic panels, rare-earth magnets for wind generators, fuel cells, and high-capacity batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles. But most industrialized nations, including the U.S., are almost entirely dependent on foreign sources for those metals. One way to change the scenario is with more domestic exploration and mining, say geologists.
“There’s a misunderstanding in the public about moving to alternative energy and moving from mining, which can’t be done,” said James Burnell of the Colorado Geological Survey. There is a long list of scarce metals needed for alternative energy and transportation. Metals like gallium, indium, selenium, tellurium, and high-purity silicon are needed to make photovoltaic panels. To make batteries there’s zinc, vanadium, lithium, and rare earth elements as well as platinum group minerals for fuel cell-powered vehicles.
China is preparing to build 330-GW of wind generators. That will require about 59,000 tons of neodymium to make high-strength magnets — more than that country’s annual output of neodymium. China supplies the world with a lot of the rare earth elements, such as neodymium, and will have little or none to export if it moves ahead with its wind power plans.
“So the source for the West is problematical,” said Burnell. Trade wars are one possibility, he says. Yet policy makers and the public seem only superficially aware of the problem.
“It is obvious Japan was upset by the …pause of rare earth export by China in late September,” said Yasushi Watanabe of the Institute for Geo-Resources and Environment in Tsukuba, Japan. New sources of these critical metals are needed, he says, as well as new methods for extracting the rare elements from different kinds of rocks. “Extraction methods of metals from new minerals and materials are not well established,” says Watanabe. “We need to develop new (refining) and smelting methods for new type ores.”
We also need to find those ores and start exploiting them, said Burnell. That means more mining. It’s the only way we can stay competitive in the new energy future.
Paper No. 132-1: Critical Metals for the New Energy Future
Session No. 132: Critical Metals (REE, In, Te, Nb, Ta, Ga, Li, etc.) for the New Energy Future
Paper No. 205-3: Resource Demands of Alternative Energy Technologies
Session No. 205: Reaching New Peaks in Geoscience: Geoscience in the Service of a Sustainable Future
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