RARE EARTH ELEMENTS (REEs)Demand for Rare Minerals and Metals Creates Eco-Dilemma

By Ida Eir Lauritzen

Published 28 January 2022

The world is crying out for rare minerals for the manufacture of electric cars, wind turbines and other technologies that we simply need more of. But how can we guarantee access to these resources without threatening the natural world and mankind as we know it?

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the demand for so-called critical raw materials (CRMs) will increase sevenfold by 2050.  The reason for this is that our green, renewable energy technologies require far more metals and other materials than those used to supply fossil energy. The electric cars that carry us from A to B will require six times more minerals than our traditional petrol-driven cars, and the wind power technologies that provide us with renewable electricity will be demanding nine times more of these resources than our gas-fired power plants. And this demand is set to accelerate rapidly in the very near future.

Dilemma Facing the Green Transition
One risk we face is of a gap emerging between our demand for CRMs resulting from global ambitions to mitigate climate change, and our actual ability to access these materials. Another risk is linked to the consequences of the environmental damage we inflict as a result of mining activities and the production of CRMs. Currently, many of these metals and minerals are sourced from mines in countries such as China and Congo. Their extraction has a negative impact on both mankind and natural ecosystems. These two risks represent two good reasons why Europe should be aiming to become self-sufficient in these critical raw materials.

“The purchase price of primary metals sourced from these countries may be low, but the real price often has to be paid by the local environment and its inhabitants”, says Ana Maria Martinez, who is a Senior Research Scientist at SINTEF. “Issues surrounding employment conditions and the environment are good enough reasons to focus our attention on the potential for materials recovery closer to home here in Europe”, she says.

Recycle Before Extraction
Over the years, Martinez has headed a number of projects aimed at developing effective technologies for the recovery and recycling of CRMs. We asked her whether she thought that Europe will be able to succeed in obtaining the materials it needs in ways that protect people and our natural ecosystems.

“No, not with the systems and regulatory frameworks under which we operate today. If we are to recover these materials we will have to develop technologies that facilitate intelligent and sustainable materials management”, she says.

Martinez is one of many scientists who was quoted on this topic in a BBC article: How to mine precious metals in your home. The concept of ‘urban mining’ addresses the process of sorting rare and valuable metals from the waste generated by industry and in our homes, and hidden in everything from electronic devices, metal smelting slags and the by-products of fertilizer manufacture.

“An urban mining initiative will help towards a more sustainable future, pave the way for better resource exploitation, and make us less dependent on metals being mined on the other side of the world”, says Martinez. “It may be commercially viable and may also reduce our need to carry out environmentally damaging mining activities.

Ana Maria Martinez has been in the vanguard of a number of projects seeking to identify ways of ensuring that Europe can obtain sustainable access to valuable resources. One of these was a project called REE4EU.The REE4EU project was acclaimed by the Solar Impulse Foundation as having developed a promising and sustainable technology, which is used when electric and hybrid vehicles are ready to be scrapped. The demand for such a technology will increase in step with the transition from fossil fuel to electric vehicles.

Sitting On
Currently, only a third of all electronic waste (WEEE) generated in Norway is collected and processed appropriately. The rest is collected by unregistered enterprises or is exported illegally out of the country.

But there is a chest of mineral treasures lying hidden both in our homes and on our waste tips. These materials are resources that can be recycled and reused. Our homes are full of electronic devices, and if you check their contents carefully you will be able to tick off almost all of the elements in the periodic table.

“Many people are perhaps not aware that they are sitting on one of the very keys that can open the doors to the green transition”, says Martinez. “We tend to hang on to our old devices in the hope that we may someday be able to use them again. This is a day that seldom comes, if ever”, she says.