One of the things that has the potential to stop the growing prevalence of green energy production methods is a potential bottleneck in the availability of a class of chemicals called rare-Earth elements (REE). At this point, demand is steadily growing, while the materials grow increasingly scarce.
Wind turbines, electric car motors, headphones, computers and numerous other high-tech applications rely on the use of REE in various amounts and combinations. Turbines, for instance, require neodymium, a material that is used to create advanced magnets.
Most of the key clean-energy technologies needed for the creation of low-carbon and zero-carbon energy sources need REE in large amounts, and the vast majority of these materials comes from China.
The Asian nation has already announced that its own demands may soon prevent it from exporting the rare-Earth element quantities required by other countries. About 98 percent of the global REE production is accounted for by China, with a small portion contributed by Australia.
A study led by experts with the Materials Systems Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(MIT) looked at the availability of 10 of the 17 REE. The chemicals dysprosium and neodymium were found to be the most likely to suffer a bottleneck in supply in the coming years.
Details of the work have been published in the latest online issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The study was authored by MIT postdoctoral student Elisa Alonso research scientist Richard Roth, senior research scientist Frank R. Field and principal researcher Randolph Kirchain.
Over the next 25 years, the demand for dysprosium could increase by as much as 2,600 percent, whereas the demand for neodymium could increase by as much as 700 percent. Both of them are used in magnets, suited for applications in advanced motors and batteries.
After analyzing historical trends, the team found that REE supplies only increase in small increments annually. The most significant annual increase was 12 percent, and that is by far not enough to cover demand.
“The bottom line is not that we’re going to ‘run out,' but it’s an issue on which we need focus, to build the supply base and to improve those technologies which use and reuse these materials. It needs to be a focus of research and development,” Kirchain says.