Technology metals are key to low-carbon future
"a true driver for sustainable development"
Clean energy solutions are closely related to the survival of the future generations. Technology metals, such as Lithium, platinum group metals (PGM), and rare earth elements (REE) are strongly related to clean techs and sustainable development. Thing is, most of these elements can face supply shortages in the coming years due to scarcity, uneven geographic distribution, geopolitical issues (boycotts), and trade policies putting populations at risk.
Lithium reigns in the energy storage arena. Despite of supply constraints, its high energy density and lightness is key to powering devices such as cell phones (6 billion+ in use today) and notebooks, and to make mobility sustainable with electric vehicles (EVs). A brief overlook of the Lithium supply chain can be found here.
Today, PGM demand is driven by the automotive industry, taking advantage of the catalytic properties of its six metal elements (Platinum, Palladium, Rhodium, Ruthenium, Osmium, Iridium). Tomorrow, the demand will be driven by the green hydrogen industry, that requires PGM-based catalysts for fuel-cells and PEM electrolyzers. Total worldwide reserves of PGM are estimated to be around 70,000 tons, with about 90% being located in South Africa [Statista, 2022]. See a brief overview of PGM here.
Rare earth elements (REE) consist of a set of 17 chemical elements that occur together in the periodic table, including Yttrium, 15 elements in the row labelled “Lanthanides” (atomic number 57 thru 71), and Scandium, considered by many as a REE.
In fact, these soft heavy metals, essential for worldwide economy and green political agenda, are not that rare! They occur in a broad range of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. However, economically exploitable REE ore deposits are sparse ("rare").
REE allow the construction of permanent magnets (the most powerful being NdFeB, a Neodymium-Iron-Boron alloy - Nd2Fe14B) used in wind turbines and traction motors for hybrids and EVs. Catalysts (for oil refineries), electronic products (cell phones, flat screen TVs, computers), lasers, and high-performance fiber optics also use REE.
Yttrium is widely used in metallurgy, ceramics, and phosphors. Taking advantage of its lightweight (it is the lightest REE) and high melting point (1,500+ oC), Scandium is used as an alloying element in aluminum to reduce the weight in the transport industry, from bikes and scooters to airplanes and spacecrafts.
Figure 1 shows global annual production of important critical tech metals.
Figure 1: Global annual production of important critical tech metals
Leaving in a metal world
The intensity of exploitation of a country's mineral resources is a key indicator of its socio-economic development, as it measures the availability of these assets to meet society's demands. An individual consumes, directly or indirectly, about 10 tons per year of products from mineral materials (metallic and non-metallic), covering more than 300 distinct mineral species [Instituto Minere, 2019]. The world’s material consumption has grown significantly over the last few decades, with growing economies and cities demanding more resources.
Indispensable to nations due to its low price and hardness, iron is the most used metal. Iron ore accounted for 93% by weight (2.6 billion tons) of all metals mined in 2021 (about 2.8 billion tons), and 98% of iron ore is converted to pig iron to make steel. Industrial metals (e.g., Aluminum, Chromium, Manganese, Copper, Zinc, Nickel) and technology & precious metals accounted for 6,5% and 0,05% by weight, respectively [Visual Capitalist, 2022].
TECHNOLOGY METALS (e.g., Lithium, PGM, REE, Tantalum, Niobium), used in clean energy techs, are usually mined on a smaller scale and could see faster consumption growth (and also supply shortages) as the world adopts new technologies.