Risk of shortage for eight strategic metals

In a report published on November 4th, the European Joint Research Centre (JRC) has warned of the ‘risk of shortage’ in 2020-2030 of eight strategic metals used in low carbon energy technologies identified in the European SET Plan adopted in 2008.

This report continues the work done in a previous study of the JRC from 2011. It is also based on the scenarios presented in 2011 in the roadmap of the EU ‘Energy 2050’ for the decarbonization of the energy system.

The JRC identifies 12 strategic metals ‘critical and near-critical’ for which the development of energy technologies requires supply on the world market, over the decade from 2020 to 2030. The potential shortage of these raw materials are subject to price volatility ‘comes from the EU dependence on imports (China, ed), the growing demand worldwide and geopolitical reasons.’

Rare earths: dysprosium ‘most at risk’

Among them, eight metals are classified as ‘high risk.’ Six are rare earths, essential especially for miniaturization of “concern” technologies. They are used for electric vehicles, wind and solar energy as well as lighting, says the JRC.

Dysprosium magnets (Dy), neodymium magnets (Nd ) and praseodymium magnets (Pr) used for wind generators and motors for hybrid and electric vehicles. Plus europium (Eu), terbium (Tb) and yttrium (Y) used in the phosphors used in light bulbs, fluorescent tubes and TV screens, and gallium (Ga) and tellurium (Te) of cadmium used in the production of solar cells.

Four other metals are ‘near -critical’ platinum (Pt) (catalyst for fuel cells), indium (In) (a component of solar cells), graphite (C) (manufacture of alkaline batteries and lithium – ion batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles) and rhenium (Re) (alloy turbines). Market conditions for these metals ‘should be monitored in case they deteriorate. This increases the risk of bottlenecks in the supply chain’ according to the researchers.

Dysprosium has been identified as ‘most at risk’ from the rare earths. The EU should require 25% of the world supply in 2020 to 2030 to meet the demand of the Union for hybrid and electric vehicles as well as wind turbines, table JRC.

European demand for lithium, it is estimated at nearly 15% of global supply, while that of graphite is 10 % for electric vehicle batteries.

European self-sufficiency: possible or not?

Increase primary supply, promote recycling and substitution of rare earths are recommended by the JRC to limit the risk of shortages. How? ‘Many initiatives” are underway to reduce the costs of these metals. For gallium and tellurium (solar cells), the data indicate that Europe already has a degree of self-sufficiency but ‘opportunities may exist to create new refineries to boost the recovery of these materials’ indicate researchers.

‘Significant improvements” have been made in recycling flow post- industrial waste in the manufacture of magnets and semiconductors, says the JRC. Thus, the recycling rate for neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium (used in magnets) are between 1 and 10%. Whereas the gallium (solar cells), they are of the order of 10 to 25%. However, the recycling rate amounted to less than 1% for yttrium, europium and terbium for phosphors used for lighting.

For some materials, it is also possible ‘to reduce the use of a particular metal or replace it completely.’ For example, to limit the use of neodymium or dysprosium, the permanent magnet motors can be replaced by superconducting motors (niobium…). Other materials magnetic property as samarium cobalt alloy can be an alternative to neodymium ‘in terms of performance” magnets. The light -emitting diode (LED) may also be an alternative to the lighting technology phosphorus to limit the use of the terbium and europium.

The JRC recommends accelerate R & D for energy storage including stationary. ‘There are many strategies available risk mitigation but a combination of actions is required on the part of government and industry’ said the JRC.

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