Energy Sustainability

Sustainability is the buzzword. Our society must use solar energy, lithium-ion batteries, etc to save the planet, at least that is what they say. But have they done their sums?. Lost in this debate is the fact that many of the technologies use relatively difficult to obtain elements. In a previous post I argued that battery technology was in trouble because there is a shortage of cobalt, required to make the cathode work for a reasonable number of cycles. Others argue that we could obtain sufficient elements. But if we are going to be sustainable, we have to be sustainable for an indefinite length of time, and mining is not sustainable; you can only dig up the ore once. Of course, there are plenty of elements left. There is more gold in the sea than has ever been mined; the problem is that it is too dilute. Similarly, most elements are present in a lump of basalt; just not much of anything useful and it is extremely difficult to get it out. The original copper mines of Cyprus, where even lumps of copper could occasionally be found, are all worked out, at least to the extent that mining is no longer profitable there.

The answer is to recycle, right? Well, according to an article [Charpentier Poncelet, A. et al. Nature Sustain. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-022- 00895-8 (2022)] there are troubles. The problem is that even if we recycle, every time we do something we lose some of the metal. Losses here refer to material emitted into the environment, stored in waste-disposal facilities, or diluted in material where the specific characteristics of the elements are no longer required. The authors define a lifetime as the average duration of their use, from mining through to being entirely lost. As with any such definition-dependent study, there will be some points where you disagree.

The first loss for many elements lies in the production state. Quite often it is only economical to obtain one or two elements, and the remaining minor components of the ore disappear in slag. These losses are mainly important for specialty elements. Production losses account for 30% of rare earth metals, 50% for cobalt, 70% for indium, and greater than 95% for arsenic, gallium, germanium, hafnium, selenium and tellurium. So most of those elements critical for certain electronic and photo-electric effects are simply thrown out. We are a wasteful lot.

Manufacturing and use incur very few losses. There are some, but because materials are purified ready for use, pieces that are not immediately used can be remelted and used. There are exceptions. 80% of barium is lost through use; it is used in drilling muds.

The largest losses come from the waste management and recycling stage. Metals undergoing multiple life cycles are still lost this way; it just takes longer to lose them. Recycling losses occur when the metal accumulates in a dust (zinc) or slag(e.g. chromium or vanadium), or get lost in another stream, thus copper is prone to dissolve in an iron stream. Longest lifetimes occur for non-ferrous metals (8 to 76 years) precious metals (4 to 192 years), and ferrous metals (8 to 154 years). The longest lifetimes are for gold and iron.

Now for the problem areas. Lithium has a life-cycle use of 7 years, then it is all gone. But lithium-ion batteries last about this long, which suggests that as yet (if these data are correct) there is very little real recycling of lithium. Elements like gallium and tellurium last less than a year, while indium manages a year. Before you protest that most of the indium goes into swipeable mobile phone screens and mobile phones last longer than a year, at least for some of us, remember that losses occur through being discarded at the mining stage, where the miner/processor can’t be bothered. Of the fifteen metals most lost during mining/processing, thirteen are critical for sustainable energy, such as cobalt (lithium-ion batteries), neodymium (permanent magnets), indium, gallium, germanium, selenium and tellurium (solar cells) and scandium (solid oxide fuel cells). If we look at the recycled content of “new material” lithium is less than 1% as is indium. Gallium and tellurium are seemingly not recycled. Why are they not recycled? Metals that are recycled tend to be like iron, aluminium, the precious metals and copper. It is reasonably easy to find uses for them where purity is not critical. Recycling and purifying most of the others requires technical skill and significant investment. If we think of lithium-ion batteries, the lithium reacts with water, and if it starts burning it is unlikely to be put out. Some items may have over a dozen elements, and some are highly toxic, and not to be in the hands of the amateur. What we see happening is that the “easy” metals are recycled by organizations that are really low-technology organizations. It is not an area attractive to the highly skilled because the economic risk/return is just not worth it, while the less-skilled simply cannot do it safely.