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Solar energy is one of the sources of renewable energy that is being looked to in order to help us reduce our CO2 emissions, and power our world in a way that is cleaner, and more sustainable than using fossil fuels. However, recent research coming out of the Netherlands has spotted a red flag to relying on solar panels as a panacea for global emissions problems. Experts have found that the rare metals required to build solar panels, such as indium and tellurium, are not in sufficient supply to keep up with demand.
The study found that production of the metals required for renewable energy sources (such as solar and wind power) need to increase twelvefold by 2050, and that wasn’t even taking into account the increase in demand we would see as population increases or the further elevated demand for these precious metals due to a boost in production in other electronics industries. Our rare metal manufacture is not enough to meet the approaching demand.
Increasing Production of Rare Metal
A simple solution would be to hike up production. Currently, China is providing the world with close to its entire supply of rare metals. It has previously been described as being home to a “rare earths kingdom”, in Ganzhou. Yet this kingdom is no longer abundant with precious metals, and experts are estimating that it will have been exhausted within the next 15 years. In addition, China’s domestic demand is escalating, causing concern for the future nature of the exports market. Suggestions to spend time and resources searching for new sources of rare metals are rejected by the fact that a new mining operation can take decades to set up, leaving the future for solar energy is uncertain as the shortage in rare metals threatens its potential penetration in the energy sector.
Experts also question the true “clean” nature of solar energy, given that mining for its essential components involves the handling of highly toxic materials, and contamination of surrounding soil and water in the process. It has been reported that people living close to China’s mines are suffering, directly and indirectly, related health problems. Mining for rare metals is considered to be one of China’s most polluting industries, presenting potential disasters relating to contamination that threaten to cause a wide-scale catastrophe.
Revision of Solar Panel Production Process
By depleting earth of its resources, solar energy is not sustainable as the components required are limited. In addition, solar energy is considered to be a clean energy alternative to help us reduce damaging CO2 emissions, but as mining for these precious metals causes other environmental damage the current process for producing solar panels has to be revised.
A possible solution to this, to enable the solar supply chain to truly be sustainable and clean, would be to access the required rare minerals through recycling electronic devices. Today, recycling of such products is uncommon, with many electronic devices containing the much sought after metals ending up in landfill. In theory, recycling could solve the problem of limited resources, however, reclaiming precious metals from devices isn’t easy. The growing complexity in the way electronic devices are built and incorporate the metals presents a challenge to reclaiming the components. A modern smartphone may incorporate 65 elements, which may be distributed at the molecular scale. The current process involves melting down the devices and adding aggressive solvents, which is considered to be causing more environmental harm, therefore leaving recycling to be questionable in being more “green” than mining.
Solar power offers the opportunity of powering a world in a way that reduces our emissions, helping us take care of our planet and promising reliable energy for centuries to come. For this reason, scientists are thinking outside of the box to solve the issue of rare metal scarcity. They’re looking to space. Within the next decade, we may see the beginning of space mining. Companies are already set to send out scoping missions to prepare for commercial-scale mining of asteroids and even planets. The universe is abundant in rare metals, and space mining could facilitate global adoption of solar energy as a step away from using fossil fuels.
Sources and Further Reading
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