“Elephant in the room”: Clean energy’s need for unsustainable minerals

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Our need for minerals may strain supply and lead to environmental issues.

Earth Day was April 22, and its usual message—take care of our planet—has been given added urgency by the challenges highlighted in the latest IPCC report. This year, Ars is taking a look at the technologies we normally cover, from cars to chipmaking, and finding out how we can boost their sustainability and minimize their climate impact.

In South America’s Atacama Desert, salt flats are dotted with shallow, turquoise-colored lithium brine pools. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, children chip at the ground for cobalt. In China, toxic chemicals leach neodymium from the earth.

This is the energy mineral rush. People around the world are scrambling, drilling, drying, and sifting to get at a range of metals needed for our energy transition. Renewable energy technologies are central to the fight against climate change, but they’re heavily reliant on minerals—naturally occurring, solid materials made from one or more elements. But extracting and refining them presents humanitarian, environmental, and logistical challenges.

Different technologies require partly overlapping materials. Lithium, nickel, and cobalt are critical to energy storage used in electric vehicles and grid systems, and rare earth elements like neodymium are needed for the permanent magnets used in wind turbines and electric vehicle motors. Meanwhile, copper is a “cornerstone” for electricity-based tech, according to a report last year by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The report found that to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, overall mineral requirements would need to increase six-fold. In that scenario, the demand for lithium would rise by 90 percent. But those minerals have to come from somewhere, and that often involves harmful sourcing, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and limits on the mineral supply.

This doesn’t mean the clean energy transition isn’t clean or possible. It is, and these challenges do not justify the ongoing, unchecked use of fossil fuels. It does mean, however, that obstacles now and on the horizon need to be addressed to get the most out of the transition.

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