Source: ISS Insights
As the energy transition gathers pace around the globe, clean energy technologies are becoming the fastest-growing segment of demand for critical minerals. This essentially concerns electricity and heat generation, energy storage, mobility, and power grids. Solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles commonly contain more minerals and rare earth elements than their fossil fuel-based counterparts.
In addition to the above, typical electric vehicles require six times the mineral inputs of conventional cars. Power grids, which are a key facilitator of the energy transition, rely on copious amounts of copper and aluminium. And electrolyzers, which are deployed in ever greater numbers for the generation of hydrogen, need nickel and zirconium, while fuels cells are particularly dependent on platinum-group metals.
Large-scale mining activities will put considerable strain on natural habitats via land use changes (or sea use changes in the case of deep-sea mining), infrastructure development, and environmental contamination. The production of many metals and minerals is particularly water- and pollutant-intensive. In this context, the application of circular design principles can help to ease environmental pressures.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) calls for stronger efforts to improve recycling of energy transition metals such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, and rare earth elements. Waste streams from wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries, are expected to increase significantly in the next few years and decades. But recycling, which is commonly seen as the least favored option of the circular economy’s technical cycle due to inherent losses in value, can only be part of a more comprehensive bundle of measures.
More innovative product designs are required that allow for the effective separation of constituent components and materials.