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a systemic approach to energy

Editor-in-Chief: Schlögl, Robert

Managing Editor: Tiedtke, Marion

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The Potential Scarcity of Rare Elements for the Energiewende

Alex M. Bradshaw
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  • Max-Planck-Institut für Plasmaphysik, (Garching/Greifswald), Boltzmannstr. 2, 85748 Garching and Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Faradayweg 4-6, 14195 Berlin, Germany
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  • Institut für Energiewirtschaft und Anwendungstechnik, Technische Universität München, Germany
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Published Online: 2013-06-15 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/green-2013-0014


In the next few decades there is expected to be a global shift in power generation from fossil fuels and nuclear fission to various forms of renewable energy. This process will be accompanied, however, by a strong demand for non-fuel raw materials required for the generation, storage, transmission and utilisation of these energy forms. Some of the raw materials are potentially exhaustible; some are already regarded, rightly or wrongly, as geochemically “scarce”. Many of them have been characterised by steep price increases in recent years. Examples are neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium for rare earth-based permanent magnets in wind turbines; indium, gallium, selenium and tellurium for thin film solar cells; helium. The supply situation with regard to such elements is often described as “critical”. A possible geochemical scarcity is, however, not the only factor contributing to this designation; the supply situation is influenced by various other parameters. We discuss the use of the terms “critical” and “criticality” in this context, pointing out the confusion which arises because of a different meaning of the terms in the physical sciences. In examining the elements mentioned above – both with respect to the supply situation and to their specific energy-oriented applications – we look at the issues of potential geochemical scarcity, substitutability and extraction as by-product. Together with the recycling potential these are three important indicators, or constraint parameters, in so-called criticality analyses. Geochemical scarcity already seems to play a role in the case of helium and could also soon become apparent for tellurium, indium and possibly dysprosium. We conclude that geochemical scarcity may pertain as a consequence of mineral depletion when average grades of ore are falling, but at the same time inflation-corrected mineral prices are rising. The use of rare metals for the production of renewable energy – like nearly all resource-consuming systems in our society – does not satisfy “strong” sustainability criteria.

Keywords: Energiewende; geochemical scarcity; mineral depletion; sustainability; wind power; photovoltaic cells; fusion; rare elements; helium

About the article

Alex M. Bradshaw

Alexander M. Bradshaw (b. 1944) studied at Queen Mary College, University of London. From 1980 to 1998 he was head of the Department of Surface Physics at the Fritz-Haber Institute of the Max-Planck Society in Berlin as well as 1981 to 1989 (with an intermission) scientific director of the synchrotron radiation source BESSY. From 1999–2008 he was scientific director of the Max-Planck Institute for Plasma Physics and chaired the German nuclear fusion programme. From 1998–2000 Bradshaw was also President of the German Physical Society (DPG) and is a member of several national academies. His current scientific interests are in surface physics as well as in energy questions and resource strategies.

Benjamin Reuter

Benjamin Reuter (b. 1984) holds an engineering degree from the Technische Universität München (TUM) and was awarded a second one through a double degree programme with the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. At both institutions his studies focussed on energy technologies, both conventional and renewable. He wrote his final thesis on solar air heaters during a stay with a small Indian company. In 2010 he began the research for his PhD at the Institute of Automotive Technology of TUM looking into questions regarding the sustainable use of materials for electric vehicles. Currently he is working with TUM Create in Singapore. The cooperation between TUM and Nanyang Technological University aims at the development of an electric taxi for megacities.

Thomas Hamacher

Thomas Hamacher (b. 1964) studied physics at the Universities of Bonn and Aachen as well as at Columbia University, New York. After receiving a PhD in 1993 from the University of Hamburg for his research work in the area of particle physics at DESY (Deutsches Elektronensynchrotron), he worked as a post-doc at the University of Texas in Austin. He subsequently joined the Max-Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Garching near Munich, where he was appointed Head of the Energy and System Studies Group in 1999. Since 2010 he has been Professor and Acting Director of the Institute for Energy Economy and Application Technology at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). His research interests encompass urban energy systems, the integration of renewable energy sources into the electricity grid and innovative nuclear techniques such as fusion. Hamacher is a member of the Energy Group of the European Physical Society (EPS) and of the Wissennschaftszentrum Umwelt of the University of Augsburg.

Received: 2013-03-13

Accepted: 2013-05-02

Published Online: 2013-06-15

Published in Print: 2013-06-14

Citation Information: Green, Volume 3, Issue 2, Pages 93–111, ISSN (Online) 1869-8778, ISSN (Print) 1869-876X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/green-2013-0014.

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