Upon choosing to read this article indicates that you were curious enough to know what the ability to be unstainable of renewable energy sources actually is. Often people talk about the bright future of solar energy or the ability to withstand future turbulence from wind power. However, certain areas sometimes are being overlooked.
Climate change and global warming have been an international hot topic (excuse the cliché pun) of discussion for quite some time now. The adverse global effects of climate change led to countries committing themselves to tackle climate change not only on a national level but also on an international scale. Unsurprisingly so, ‘sustainable development’ has simultaneously increasingly also been a subject of great interest to especially scientists and governments. The growing prominence of climate change and sustainable development on the political agenda has also influenced energy policies.
However, scarce and rare metals and elements have barely received any publicity up until a couple of years ago in 2008 when China, the prime producer of rare earth elements (REE), began to cut their exports. This was when the rest of the world realised how vulnerable the supply of REE was considering China dominates 95% of the shares of production. While some of these REEs are very abundant, the low concentration of these metals on earth can make the economic feasibility to exploit them very challenging in the future. Unfortunately, at the moment REEs are being used in the production of many technologies including wind turbines and PV panels. The application of some of the REEs is a very recent yet rapid development so there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the specific mass flows in the waste management sector.
The elements used in some solar panels include cadmium and tellurium (CdTe) copper, indium and selenium (CIS), and copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS). Each of these constituents is intended to increase operating efficiencies and lower manufacturing prices of the PV modules.
Currently flat screens share the biggest part of the indium demand with 74% market share. However, the flat screens will be competing with the rapid growth of the Indium demand that will rise up less than 5% market share to 18% by 2030. According to a multidisciplinary study done by MIT: “even supplying just 5% of global electricity demand in 2050 with CIGS solar cells would require 10% annual growth in indium production over the next 36 years.” (Energy Initiative MIT, 2015). Indium is a by-product of zinc refining and the amount of by-product that is obtained during refining is relatively low. Meaning, although the share of 18% might not be substantial it should not be underestimated. Most indium refinery production happens in China (50%) and in Japan. So geopolitical factors will most definitely play role in the future of indium supply.
This article only focusses on the scarcity of some (of the many) REEs in solar panels. Some types of wind turbines use permanent magnets in their generators, which also contains REEs such as neodymium. The point of this article was not to identify specific REEs in renewable energy sources but to point out that there are bottlenecks in renewable energy sources that should be addressed and research to avoid future problems. The message is to not be satisfied but to keep perfecting our technology, knowledge and science because sustainability is not a destination but a journey.
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