Researcher: ‘The greatest bottlenecks can be expected for lithium and cobalt’

Environmental group WWF commissioned a study in 2014 to look at which materials are at risk of shortages as a result of the transition to a green economy. [The NRMA / Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Metals in the circular economy.

As excitement builds about the opportunities of the new green economy, concerns are growing as well. The economic transition will require new grid infrastructure, new distribution models and, perhaps most importantly, more raw materials, says Kornelis Blok.

There are increasing worries over the future availability of mined and non-renewable
minerals and materials that are essential for green technologies like solar panels, wind turbines and batteries.

This concern is especially stark concerning rare earth metals which are – the clue is in the name – rare. But it also extends to more common metals such as copper and aluminium.

For this reason, environmental group WWF commissioned a study in 2014 to look at which materials are at risk of shortages as a result of the transition to a green economy. Conducted by the consultancy Ecofys, it bases its calculations on the 100% sustainable energy scenario presented in The Energy Report, a study produced by WWF and Ecofys in 2011.

EURACTIV spoke with Kornelis Blok, one of the authors of the study.

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With this study, you set out to find out if the transition to a green economy could put a strain on global resource use. What did you find?

The transition to a 100% sustainable energy system will obviously require significant material inputs. That can include a common material like copper that is needed all over the place, for example for solar modules, wind turbines, power grid expansion and efficient motors.

New solar cell types will require substantial amounts of indium, gallium or tellurium. However, these materials are not needed if we stick to the now common solar cells based on silicon. Silicon is abundant.

Which materials did you find would experience the greatest bottlenecks? How can those bottlenecks be alleviated?

The greatest bottlenecks can be expected for lithium and cobalt. These are used as materials in batteries, for instance in electric vehicles.

Bottlenecks there can be alleviated by recycling the lithium from batteries after their lifetime is over, by substituting lithium use in other sectors, and by using less cobalt-intensive cathodes. Also, different battery types may be developed, for example by making use of graphene.

On the whole, will the transition to the green economy lead to more material demand or more material savings?

We have not investigated this question in full. But the 100% sustainable energy scenario that we developed also includes high levels of energy efficiency and material efficiency. This leads to significant material savings that will likely more than offset additional material use across-the-board, but not for every single material.

Is additional legislation needed to ensure increased material efficiency to prevent bottlenecks? What happens in a scenario where there is no such legislation?

The concerns are not so strong that dedicated regulation for sustainable energy material use is necessary. There are already strong drivers to use materials in an efficient way, as this can lead to important cost reductions. And furthermore, material efficiency in this area will also benefit from circular economy policies that are anyway needed.

What was the most surprising result of this study for you?

We were surprised that material constraints played such a limited role, given the substantial attention for so-called critical materials. We found that geopolitical constraints may play a role as for some materials, like neodymium and yttrium, as the majority of current production is concentrated in just one country, like China.

But the overall resource is often large enough, and also spread across a variety of countries, so there are not necessarily geopolitical concerns in the long run.

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