Technologies of the future and resources – rare earths a sticking point?

21.12.2011

The rapid growth of new technologies in the energy and transport sectors will drive up demand for special resources. The need for rare earths, in particular, is likely to rise disproportionately by 2030. It is therefore vital to develop alternative technology strategies that are not dependent on these valuable resources and to find efficient methods of recycling them. These are among the key findings of a research project that has investigated the resource-policy aspects of electric mobility. The work was carried out by the Öko-Institut in cooperation with Daimler AG, Umicore and TU Clausthal supported by the German Environment Ministry (BMU).

The partners first identified 12 metals that are particularly important in the manufacture of electric vehicles. These are copper for all components, rare earths such as neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium and terbium for electric motors, and indium, gallium, germanium, gold, silver, platinum and palladium for other components such as power electronics. The project team then calculated the possible future requirement for these priority metals in the context of electric mobility.

“We anticipate that demand for some of the metals studied will increase – in some cases sharply – by 2030. One of the reasons for this is electric mobility, if its market penetration develops as outlined in global strategies or within the national electro-mobility platform,” explains Dr. Matthias Buchert, project manager at the Öko-Institut, as he describes the findings of the scenario analyses. “The increase is greatest for dysprosium.”

The scarce supply of dysprosium, most of which is currently produced in China, contrasts with the constantly rising demand for it – partly for electric mobility but also for other applications, such as the manufacture of neodymium iron boron magnets, which are needed for the rapidly growing production of wind turbines. The findings also identify other clear trends: relative to the total primary production of the 12 metals in the base year of 2010, the rare earths such as neodymium, praseodymium, terbium and gallium were found to be particularly likely to grow in importance. Gallium, for example, is used not only in electric mobility but also in photovoltaic systems and LEDs.

Start seeking solutions now

The Öko-Institut identifies two key strategies for avoiding supply bottlenecks in the medium and long term. Firstly, resources need to be used more efficiently and where possible replaced by other technologies. Secondly, recycling strategies for rare earths and other critical metals must be developed and brought to market now to avoid shortages in the long term.

“Even now, recycling important precious metals – for example from the catalytic converters of end-of-life vehicles – can do a lot to ease the pressure on demand and the impact on the environment,” Buchert continues. “Prices of rare earths on the world markets have risen sharply in the past year: this highlights the potential for a new approach to the conservation of finite resources.”

In addition, new reserves – especially of rare earths – must be explored and tapped to avoid critical situations such as can arise if production is limited almost exclusively to one country. Prof. Dr. Daniel Goldmann concludes that “more environmentally sound mining, recycling, substitution, and efficient production and use of critical metals will be an ongoing issue for German research and technology. That is the only way in which we can reap the ecological benefits that the spread of electric mobility is designed to achieve.”

Details of the research methodology

The calculations according to various scenarios – innovation scenario, recycling scenario, substitution scenario – were based on the global market scenarios of McKinsey 2009 for the development of electric mobility. These scenarios were combined with detailed data on the quantities of the priority metals needed for the main components of the different types of electric propulsion system (hybrid, plug-in, range-extender, battery electric, fuel cell). The data for the specific resource requirements of the relevant components was discussed with external experts in special workshops.

Further information

The study “Resource efficiency and resource-policy aspects of the electromobility system”, produced by the OPTUM project on optimising the environmental benefit of electric vehicles, which is funded by the German Environment Ministry (BMU) (in german language only)

The presentation “Resource efficiency and resource-policy aspects of the electromobility system” with selected findings of the Öko-Institut study

The Öko-Institut’s brochure “Autos unter Strom”, produced by the OPTUM project (in german language only) 

Contact at the Öko-Institut

Dr. Matthias Buchert
Head of the Infrastructure & Enterprises Division
Öko-Institut e.V., Darmstadt office
Tel.: +49 6151 8191-47
Email: m.buchert--at--oeko.de

Contact at Clausthal Technical University

Prof. Dr. Daniel Goldmann
TU Clausthal, Institute of Mineral and Waste Processing, Waste Disposal and Geomechanics
Tel.: +49 5323 72-2735
Email: goldmann--at--aufbereitung.tu-clausthal.de

Contact at Umicore

Frank Treffer
Umicore AG & Co. KG, Battery Recycling
Tel.: +49 6181 59-4889
Email: frank.treffer--at--eu.umicore.com

Contact at Daimler AG

Matthias Brock
Daimler AG, Technological and environmental communication
Tel.: +49 711 17-91404

Sandra Hahn
Daimler AG, Technological and environmental communication
Tel.: +49 711 17-95158

The Öko-Institut is a leading European research and consultancy institute working for a sustainable future. Founded in 1977, the institute develops principles and strategies for realising the vision of sustainable development globally, nationally and locally. The Institute has locations in Freiburg, Darmstadt and Berlin.

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