Materials scarcity; a threat to sustainable energy?

September 2013

In only a few decades, some important feedstocks will no longer be available indefinitely. This will have drastic consequences, not only for the manufacturing of high-tech products that we have come to depend upon so much, such as computers and televisions. Materials scarcity also impacts sustainable energy production. Our children will already encounter scarcity of indium or silver, used to produce solar cells, or a lack of dysprosium, an essential metal used for magnets in wind turbines. Three to six generations later face an imminent lack of phosphor and potassium; essential ingredients for fertilizer and hence large-scale food production, but also the cultivation of biomass.

Urban mining
Now is the time to nip the imminent feedstock scarcity in the bud, or we will be too late anyway. In half a century, sustainable energy may have become technically feasible and socially embedded, but by then it will encounter the new, insurmountable barrier of feedstock scarcity. Urban mining, the smart recycling of waste products, is one solution that is currently being worked on intensively. Our waste will increasingly be used as a feedstock for metals and nutrients. ECN has a unique database of element compositions of all kinds of waste products, such as WIP ash and coal fly ash, bottom ash and contaminated sludge. This database is screened for the presence of extractable quantities of rare metals.

New solar cell designs
The good news for solar energy is that the main feedstock for solar cells is one of the most common and inexhaustible elements on earth: silicon, also simply known as quartz sand. On the other hand, materials that are used for current conduction in the solar cell are becoming increasingly scarce, such as silver. ECN is therefore experimenting with new solar cell designs in which such materials are no longer or much less needed. Copper, for example, is also a good current conductor and investigated by ECN as replacement for silver.

Competitive position
In time, scarce materials will be depleted; their prices are already soaring. ECN is looking for solutions to secure sustainable energy production in the long run, and to help companies strengthen their competitive position today.

Ton Veltkamp is Program Developer sustainable energy systems. Are you curious about the work ECN is doing to find alternatives for scarce materials? Give him a call at +31 6 224 68497.