Study: Enough Rare Earth Metals to Fuel the Green Energy Transition
The world has enough rare earth minerals and other important raw materials to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy to produce electricity and limit global warming.according to a new study countering concerns about the supply of such minerals.
With the push to get more electricity from solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric and nuclear power plants, some people worry that there aren’t enough key minerals to make the key to decarbonization.
Rare earth metals, also called rare earth elements, are not actually rare. The USGS describes them as “relatively abundant.” They are needed for the strong magnets needed for wind turbines; They also appear in smartphones, computer screens, and LED lights. This new study looks not only at these elements but at 17 different raw materials required to generate electricity which include some common resources such as steel, cement and glass.
A team of scientists looked at materials — many of which were not mined heavily in the past — and 20 different energy sources. They calculated supplies and pollution from mining if green energy rose to meet global targets for reducing heat-trapping carbon emissions from fossil fuels.
More mining is needed, but there’s enough minerals to go around that mining won’t greatly exacerbate warming, according to the Friday study. The scientific journal Joule is over.
“Decarbonization is going to be big and messy, but at the same time we can do it,” said study co-author Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at technology company Stripe and Berkeley Earth. “I’m not worried about running out of these materials.”
Much of the global concern about raw materials for decarbonization relates to batteries and transportation, especially electric vehicles that rely on lithium for batteries. This study does not look at that.
Looking at the metallurgical demands of the batteries is much more complex than the electrical energy, Hausfather said, and that’s what the team will do next. He said the energy sector still accounts for about a third to a half of the resource issue.
Much depends on how quickly the world transitions to green energy.
There will be a shortage of supplies. For example, dysprosium It is a mineral used for magnets in wind turbines, and a major push for cleaner electricity would require three times as much dysprosium as is currently being produced, the paper reported. But there is more than 12 times more dysprosium in reserves than is needed in this clean energy boost.
Another close call is tellurium, which is used on industrial solar farms and where there may be slightly more estimated resources than are needed in a large green batch. But the Hausfather said alternatives are available in all cases of these substances.
There are enough materials in reserves. “The analysis is robust and this study debunks those (depleted mineral) concerns,” said Daniel Ibarra, a professor of environment at Brown University who was not part of the study but is looking at lithium deficiency. But he said production capacity had to grow for some “major minerals” and that one issue was how fast they could grow.
Another concern is whether mining will add more carbon emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere. It would reach, possibly as much as 10 billion metric tons, Hausfather said, which is a quarter of annual global carbon emissions. He said that renewables require more materials per energy output than fossil fuels because they are more decentralized.
Hausweather said the increase in carbon pollution from more mining would be offset by a significant decrease in pollution from fossil fuels that emit heavy carbon.
“Along with mining more, we should use less,” said Rob Jackson of Stanford University, who was not part of the study.
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