Nicola Jones: A shortage of “rare earth” metals, used in everything from electric car batteries to solar panels to wind turbines, is hampering the growth of renewable energy technologies. Researchers are now working to find alternatives to these critical elements or better ways to recycle them.
“The move toward new and better technologies — from smart phones to electric cars — means an ever-increasing demand for exotic metals that are scarce thanks to both geology and politics. Thin, cheap solar panels need tellurium, which makes up a scant 0.0000001 percent of the earth’s crust, making it three times rarer than gold. High-performance batteries need lithium, which is only easily extracted from briny pools in the Andes. Platinum, needed as a catalyst in fuel cells that turn hydrogen into energy, comes almost exclusively from South Africa…Researchers and industry workers alike woke with a shock to the problems caused by these dodgy supply chains in 2011, when the average price of “rare earths” — including terbium and europium, used in fluorescent bulbs; and neodymium, used in the powerful magnets that help to drive wind turbines and electric engines — shot up by as much as 750 percent in a year. The problem was that China, which controlled 97 percent of global rare earth production, had clamped down on trade. A solution was brokered and the price shock faded, but the threat of future supply problems for rare earths and other so-called “critical elements” still looms.”