We all know the important part played by lithium in battery manufacture. But there is a longer list of metals – including copper, cobalt and neodymium – that must ramp up supply for the continued rapid growth of EVs, solar, wind and other renewables technologies. EVs alone will increase the consumption of copper nine-fold by 2027. Cobalt prices already doubled in 2017. Neodymium use will rise by 700% in the next few decades to satisfy our need for renewables. Parakram Pyakurel takes the measure of the supply and demand for these critical materials, and looks at how Toyota is responding to the challenge.
Renewables cannot grow faster than the supply in materials they consume
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has estimated that renewable energy needs to be scaled up at least six times faster for the world to meet the decarbonisation and climate mitigation goals. Going beyond that, the most ambitious advocates of renewables have created roadmaps to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Whichever path we take, the fight against climate change will only be won if we plan for the rise in the supply of raw materials needed to deploy renewable energy systems at large scale.
The share of renewable energy (excluding hydro) in global electricity generation was around 8.4% in 2017. As their share rises, we must deal with the scarcity of critical metals and other minerals required by renewable energy systems. These materials include lithium, copper, cobalt and the rare earth elements. We are already seeing the effects renewables are having on their supply.
World copper inventories and recycling are already in decline
Electric Vehicles (EV) typically contain 10 times more copper than conventional fossil fuel vehicles which means that EVs will greatly increase copper demand. Transportation currently accounts for only 12.5% of total copper consumption but EV growth projections estimate that its demand for copper will increase by over 9 times by 2027 compared to the demand in 2017, according to a report commissioned by the International Copper Association. The impact of this on other major copper consuming sectors such as power generation, distribution & transmission, construction, and appliances & electronics needs to be critically analysed. Despite the continued decline of global copper inventories, its recycling rate has been decreasing since 2011 according to Statista:
Cobalt: renewables must compete with aerospace, healthcare, and mining
Cobalt is another important scarce metal that renewable energy systems such as solar, wind and biogas heavily use. Shortage of cobalt can severely hamper transition to full electric solutions and this shortage is already being felt. According to the United States Geological Survey, average annual cobalt prices more than doubled, owing to strong demand from consumers, limited availability on the spot market, and an increase in metal purchases by investors in 2017. In addition to its use in rechargeable batteries and other renewable energy applications, cobalt is also used in the aerospace industry (to manufacture turbine blades for jet engines), orthopedic and dental implants, and mining tools. This means, cobalt cannot be used for renewable energy solutions alone unless cobalt substitutes are found for other applications.
Companies are now looking for technological alternatives
Other metals of concerns are rare earth elements such as neodymium and dysprosium, which are heavily used by wind energy and EVs. Over the coming decades the consumption of neodymium is projected to increase by 700% and dysprosium by 2600% thanks to growth in wind energy and EVs. Some companies realise the limitations of the supply of critical materials and Toyota is already experimenting on magnets for electric motors to minimise the problem.
The newly developed magnet uses no terbium (Tb) or dysprosium (Dy). A portion of the neodymium has been replaced with lanthanum (La) and cerium (Ce), which can also be used in high-temperature conditions, reducing the amount of neodymium in the magnet.
The automaker also reduced the grain size of the metals in the magnet. This has been an avenue of research for some time: a 2015 Sustainable Materials and Technologies paper noted that finding a way to reliably reduce the grain size of components of rare earth magnets could increase the magnetic energy stored in a magnet. Toyota’s researchers were able to reduce the grain size of its magnets’ components to one-tenth of what is used in standard magnets.
Assuming that all the near-future barriers will be overcome, and the renewable energy transition continues, we still need to think about its long term success. New technologies are definitely needed. Recycling will also play a vital role. Indeed, every player in solar, wind, EVs and related sectors need only look at the rising costs and lowering supply of the critical materials they depend upon to understand that business as usual is not an option.
Dr Parakram Pyakurel specialises in renewable energy, sustainability and energy planning and policy at the Warsash School of Maritime Science and Engineering, Southampton Solent University, UK.