EU report highlights solar metals fear


An EU report has called for R&D efforts to extend the lifetimes of PV products and to explore the role nanotechnology can play in PV as part of a bid to avert a potential shortage of metals used in the solar industry.

A report by the EU’s Joint Research Center (JRC) into the global supply of raw materials necessary for low carbon technology highlighted two metals used in PV cells – tellurium and gallium – as critically at risk of shortages and a third, indium, as medium-to-high risk, looking ahead to 2030.

The report – Critical metals in the path towards the decarbonisation of the EU energy sector – updates research performed in 2011 by the JRC into potential bottlenecks in the supply of materials needed for low carbon technology.

The new report looks forward based on expected materials demand rather than focusing on current supply levels.

The JRC report predicts EU member states will demand 12% of the global supply of refining by-product tellurium in 2020 – 150 tonnes – with the figure falling to 6.9%, or 126 tonnes, ten years later.

For zinc refining by-product indium, the 145 tonnes and 121 tonnes expected for 2020 and 2030 will account for 7.6% and 4.9% of global supply, although indium demand from other EU sectors will drive those figures up to, 7.8% and 5.1%, respectively.

Demand for the other at-risk PV component identified – alumina by-product gallium – is predicted to total 4 tonnes in 2020 and 3 tonnes in 2030, equating to 0.8% and 0.5% of global supply with that figure jumping to 2.2% and 2.8%, respectively, when other industries are factored in.

China sits on large deposits

The fact China accounts for a significant portion of global tellurium supply and more than half of the other two metals – together with Peru and Bolivia’s position as leaders in the supply of the raw materials from which indium is produced – add a potentially unstable geopolitical element to the EU’s predictions.

The report’s authors note that, although trade co-operation between nations is a promising way forward, the number of raw materials disputes lodged with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against China indicate there may be trouble ahead.

The JRC report suggests three potential solutions in increasing primary supply, expanding recycling efforts and exploring substitute components and technologies.

The authors note any move to expand rare earth element mining in the EU for tellurium and gallium will require an acceptance by citizens of the need for expanding such operations, and the role of nanotechnology in finding substitute materials and in extending the lifetime of PV products to reduce demand are also highlighted as potential solutions.

The report also examines the problems large-scale take-up of electric vehicles (EV) could cause with the EU requiring a potential 25% of the world’s supply of dysprosium from 2020 to 2030 and fellow EV and hybrid vehicle components lithium, graphite, neodymium, praseodymium and cobalt also rated medium-to-high risk.