Transition in energy and transportation sectors will increase the demand for minerals as emerging technologies (solar, wind, and electric vehicles) require more minerals than fossil based technologies.
However, minerals impacts on the sustainability of emerging technologies go beyond the minerals directly utilized in these technologies, and their availability and environmental impacts, to the minerals coexisting with them in nature.
The implications of the increasing demand for several rare earth elements (REEs) in wind power and electric vehicles technologies on the supply of other naturally coexisting REEs and consequently the environmental impacts associated with the two technologies and their long term sustainability have been addressed by Prof. Ayman Elshkaki from the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in a recent study published in Communications Earth & Environment. The study is part of an on-going project that addresses material-energy-water-climate nexus.
It has been found that the highest oversupply of all REEs is the result of dysprosium demand in wind and electric vehicles technologies. Annual energy, water, and CO2 emissions (E-W-CO2) associated with the production of oversupplied REEs by 2050 is expected to be between 4.9 and 6.2 times those associated with neodymium and dysprosium production, and cumulative E-W-CO2 is expected to be between 5.5 and 6.4 times.
Annual CO2 emissions associated with REEs demand and oversupply by 2030 is expected to be between 22% and 29% of the CO2 emissions reduction expected in the IEA EV30@30 scenario due to EVs use without changing the electricity mix and between 10 % and 14% of CO2 emissions reduction due to EVs use and power grid decarbonisation.
Several options for possible mitigation of the supply-demand balance problem, on demand and supply sides of metals, have been analysed. The increase in resources efficiency reduces CO2 emissions by 39%, supplying dysprosium from its rich deposits reduces CO2 emissions by 78%, and dysprosium recycling reduces CO2 emissions by 35%.
Combined demand and supply measures reduce CO2 emissions by 90%. The study also highlighted several other supply-demand balance problems associated with metals required for emerging technologies that should be addressed when evaluating the sustainability of emerging technologies.
This research is funded by the Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; National Key Research and Development Program of China; International Partnership Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences; and China-Pakistan Joint Research Center on Earth Sciences.
Elshkaki. A. Sustainability of emerging energy and transportation technologies impacted by the coexistence of minerals in nature. Communications Earth & Environment, 2, 186 (2021).