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Scientists have been trying to draw attention to the fact that the world is traveling on the path of climate change, to which the destination can only be destruction, but it’s not too late to change course. Right now, we are becoming wise to the damage that has already been done, and making choices to not only avoid future damage but also to reverse the negative effects that we’ve already caused, creating sustainability for future generations. Better late than never.
The current goal of the energy sector is to make the switch from using fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives. We need to implement these new technologies to reduce emissions and protect the planet, however, clean tech relies heavily on access to rare minerals and metals, and this presents the industry with two main challenges.
The powerful magnets required by electric cars require an abundance of neodymium, boron, and iron. Wind turbines and solar powers also rely on neodymium, as well as dysprosium, praseodymium, terbium, and indium. The rate at which we need to grow renewable energy, as well as the fact that it is competing for these resources against other technology makers (modern phones and televisions also require rare metals and minerals) means that our production of them needs to grow twelvefold by 2050. However, resources are being depleted, China is where most of the world’s production of rare materials takes place but in recent years it's capacity to export enough resource is falling under uncertainty. Its mines are becoming stripped of resources, and the country is requiring larger quantities for domestic use. This poses the first challenge to using rare materials in clean energy, a growing demand facing depleting resources.
Secondly, mining for rare minerals has a detrimental impact on the environment, counteracting the emission-reducing-effect of using renewables over fossil fuels. We know that the process of mining for rare materials has a toxic impact. The ores of the materials often contain uranium and thorium, which are radioactive elements. The extraction process often results in contamination to the water table, poses health risks to the workers, and has further negative implications for the environment.
The case is being made to foster a fundamental change in the clean technologies sector to sourcing minerals using responsible methods. Current production has been proven to threaten the environment and often infringes human rights. To ensure that our new clean energy technology is sustainable, we must make sure that it is truly is clean, and to do this we have to evolve our current mining processes. Take Norway for example, there is a current battle happening between those who want to protect the nature of the famous fjords and those who want to sacrifice it to mine on the land. The stance that genuinely sustainable energy would take is that the environment should not be harmed as a result of any process throughout the supply chain, as it is counterintuitive.
Striving Towards Cleaner Mining
The project to clean up mining is ambitious, but given the achievements with innovation clean technologies, we can trust that the solution to cleaner mining is attainable. Scientists need support and focus on this area to make it happen. In solving the resource availability challenges, application of similar thinking could be useful and cleaning up current processes could prove fruitful. Right now recycling is not a focus, because the process is very complex for reusing rare materials as they are often integrated within the technology and are difficult to separate. However, if efforts were focused on innovating new technology to facilitative this process, then it’s entirely feasible that an effective system could be developed, giving us access to a significant amount of material through recycling.
Sources and Further Reading