The Role of Minerals in Promoting Low-Carbon Technologies

Modern life on planet Earth thrives on the use of energy. The industrial advancements made in the past century have bestowed many favors upon us. However, these perks have come at great expense that is inhibiting the purity of our ecosystem; specifically, the use of two main energy sources – fossil fuels and coal results in the formation of carbon-laden byproducts, which are detrimental to our environment. In addition, coal combustion is one of the major sources of anthropogenic arsenic emission into the biosphere, of which India, China, and the United States are currently major contributors.

Due to the unrestrained production and emission of these byproducts in the past few decades, the Earth’s climate is getting warmer and unpredictable. Several environmental studies have issued warnings that the ongoing climate deterioration has put the existence of many geographical regions in jeopardy.

Many countries have understood the perils of conventional energy resources and are now willing to cut down their use. For instance, France has pledged to go gasoline-free on roads by the end of 2040. Similarly, many other countries have also set targets to reduce their reliance on carbon-intensive technologies.

Low-Carbon Technologies

Solar energy, wind energy, and batteries are at the core of the low-carbon paradigm. Sun and wind are considered the two most abundant sources of renewable energy. In addition, only they have the potential to take the place of conventional energy options. Batteries, on the other hand, play a vital part towards cleaner energy for our environment, but a car using electricity as a fuel has to have a robust and long-lasting battery as the fuel reservoir and transmission. Similarly, solar panels and wind turbines can’t become part of the main power grid without suitable battery installments.    

Interestingly, all the aforementioned components of the low-carbon future extensively depend on different minerals. Let’s have a look at how minerals play a major role in low-carbon energy solutions.

Use of Minerals and Metals in Wind Turbines

Offshore Wind Turbines

Wind power is at the center of the eco-friendly energy landscape. It has the ability to replace conventional energy sources in coastal areas and other regions with good average gust speed. It has been estimated that, in the next 5-6 years, a 1000-feet tall wind turbine will be able to produce enough energy to provide electricity to a small town.

The wind turbines designed on the latest technology require extensive use of minerals for its production. For instance, the power setup of a three-megawatt wind turbine needs.

  •        335 tons of steel
  •        4.7 tons of copper
  •        3 tons of aluminum
  •        2 tons of rare earth minerals

1,200 tons of concrete is also required to put up a 3-MW wind turbine. (Note: concrete also consists of different minerals).

The above figures clearly indicate that we will need different minerals and metals in great quantity for making wind turbines. Without the easy availability of raw materials, the prospect of setting up a wind turbine will remain an expensive affair. This downside will discourage both public and private entities to fulfill their power needs through wind energy.

Use of Minerals and Metals in Solar Cells

According to a study from 2017, solar energy makes up more than half (54.5%) of the global renewable capacity. It has also been estimated that the share of solar energy will be increased by 3% in the next three years. Photovoltaic cells, which convert light energy into electricity, are at the core of solar energy generation.

Metals and minerals are important raw materials needed in the making of PV cells. A standard PV cell is 70% glass. This means a large amount of silicon will be required for extensive solar cell networks. Aluminum, tin, copper, and lead are also part of solar cell construction. It is interesting to note that a fractional amount of silver is required in PV cells. However, its consumption in solar cell production still accounts for 7% of the overall silver demand.

For wide-scale and economical manufacturing of PV cells, governments and private companies have to expedite the mining of different minerals especially silver, aluminum, and tin.

Use of Minerals and Metals in Batteries

Batteries are the backbone of renewable energy transmission. Whether it’s solar or wind, any alternative energy model can’t sustain without efficient batteries in place. Lithium-ion cells are considered ideal batteries in setting up an efficient renewable energy system. Besides lithium, nickel, and cobalt are also needed to make these batteries.    

The Growing Demand for Minerals

By keeping in mind the ongoing and future renewable energy projects, researchers have projected the increase in demand of several minerals by 2050. Since every renewable energy project needs lithium-ion batteries, the demand for lithium will most likely see an exponential rise. Researchers have concluded that the lithium demand will be shot up by 965% in comparison to its current production.

Regarding copper, some experts predict that we are going to need the same amount in the next 25 years that we have used in the last 5,000 years. Nickel, Vanadium, Indium, cobalt, and graphite are also some of the minerals that will experience a significant rise in their demand for a low-carbon environment.

The Paradox of Mining and Low-Carbon Energy Generation

It is really evident that extensive mining is required for fulfilling the mineral and metal demand of the renewable energy sector. As things stand, mining makes up 11% of global energy consumption. While striving for clean energy, it is equally important to make current mining methods more efficient so that they can’t negate the efforts made for reducing greenhouse emissions.   

An Opportunity for Developing Countries

Many large deposits of minerals and metals required to devise clean-energy are present in developing countries. These countries now have an opportunity to boost their economies while playing a critical role in cutting down the global dependence on carbon-laden fuel and energy sources. However, it is extremely important that they employ smart mining methods to excavate the required minerals. Without better mining practices, the entire exercise of ‘minerals for clean energy’ can end up without bearing any substantial results.

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