Shortage of alternative energy minerals will trigger trade wars

Posted by Emma Woollacott

The trend towards alternative energy sources will trigger international trade wars, a Colorado Geological Survey scientist will tomorrow warn the Geological Society of America.

Large quantities of rare metals are needed to make photovoltaic panels, rare earth magnets for wind generators, fuel cells and high-capacity batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles. Metals like gallium, indium, selenium, tellurium, and high purity silicon are needed to make photovoltaic panels, while batteries require zinc, vanadium, lithium and rare earth elements, and platinum group minerals are needed for fuel cell-powered vehicles.

But most industrialized nations, including the US, are almost entirely dependent on foreign sources for those metals. What's needed is more domestic exploration and mining, says James Burnell of the CGS.

"There's a misunderstanding in the public about moving to alternative energy and moving from mining, which can't be done," he says.

One of the biggest sources of these scarce metals is China - and it's starting to play hardball, says Burnell.

China is preparing to build 330GW worth of wind generators, which will require about 59,000 tons of neodymium. And while the country currently supplies much of the world with neodymium, the new generators will need more than its entire annual output. There won't be much left for anybody else.

“It is obvious that Japan was upset by the practical pause of rare earth export by China in late September,” says Yasushi Watanabe of the Institute for Geo-Resources and Environment in Tsukuba, Japan.

New sources of these critical metals are needed, he says, as well as new methods for extracting the rare elements from different kinds of rocks.

"Extraction methods of metals from new minerals and materials are not well established," says Watanabe. "We need to develop new [refining] and smelting methods for new-type ores."