The world has enough rare-earth minerals and other critical raw materials that could switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy to produce electricity and halt global warming, according to a new study that counters concerns about the availability of those materials. Huh.
With efforts to increase electricity generation with solar panels, wind turbines, as well as hydroelectric and nuclear plants, some fear there are not enough essential minerals to make the decarbonization change.
Rare earth elements are not in short supply. The United States Geological Survey describes them as “relatively abundant”. They are essential for making the powerful magnets needed for wind turbines; They are also used in cell phones, computer screens and LED lamps.
This new study analyzes not only those elements, but 17 different raw materials needed to produce electricity, including some common resources such as steel, cement and glass.
A team of scientists studied the materials—many of them rarely mined in the past—and 20 different energy sources. They calculated the availability and pollution from its extraction should increase clean energy needs to meet global goals to reduce greenhouse carbon emissions, meaning they retain heat, and burn fossil fuels. are generated from.
The study, published Friday in the scientific journal Joule, concludes that further extraction of these substances is necessary, that there are enough of them to go around, and that exploiting them would not significantly increase warming.
“Decarbonization is going to be a big and complex task, but we can accomplish it,” says Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at technology company Stripe and the Berkeley Earth Organization, co-author of the study. “I’m not worried that we’re going to run out of these materials.”
Global concern over the raw materials needed for decarbonization relates to batteries and transportation, particularly electric vehicles whose batteries rely on lithium. The study doesn’t address that aspect.
Hausfather said investigating the demand for minerals to make batteries is far more complex than generating electricity, and that’s what the team will do later. He said that the power sector represents between a third and a half of the problem related to the availability of resources.
Much depends on how quickly the world moves to clean energy.
At present, the availability of material will be insufficient. For example, dysprosium is a mineral used in wind turbine magnets, so a major push to generate clean electricity would require three times as much dysprosium, according to the paper. But the reserves of that element are more than 12 times the amount needed to move toward clean energy.
Tellurium is in a similar situation. The element is used in industrial solar farms, and its deposits may contain amounts slightly higher than those needed for green energy success. But Housefather claims that there are alternatives available in all of these cases.
“The stockpiles of these materials are sufficient. The analysis is robust and this study refutes those concerns (of mineral depletion),” said Daniel Ibarra, a Brown University professor of the environment who was not involved in the study and is investigating lithium depletion. However, he adds Production capacity will need to be increased for some “essential metals”, and one problem is the rate at which this can be done.
Another concern is whether mining these materials will increase the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. According to Hausfather, it would probably be as much as 10 billion metric tons, which accounts for a quarter of the world’s annual carbon emissions.
He noted that renewable energy requires more materials to produce energy than fossil fuels because they are more decentralized.
However, according to Hausfeder, the increase in carbon pollution from extraction activities would be more than offset by the large reduction in emissions from fossil fuels.
Rob Jackson of Stanford University, who was not involved in the study, said that despite many indications that there are enough rare earth minerals, a balance is needed: “In addition to mining more, we should be using less.”
Seth Borenstein is on Twitter as @borenbears
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