Transitioning to new, cleaner technologies is imperative if we are to mitigate against the growing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and climate change impacts that result from our use of fossil fuels. There are also associated benefits to new cleaner technologies in terms of improving local air quality through avoiding emissions; for many cities like Birmingham, there is a pressing need to improve local air quality.
New green technologies require varied strategic elements and critical materials, which provide unique technical characteristics that allow new devices to generate, store and transform energy cleanly. From the rare earth used in offshore wind turbines and electric vehicle motors to the lithium and cobalt, nickel, manganese and graphite used in lithium-ion batteries (LIB), the world we are creating will be reliant on a more diverse range of materials than at any point in human history as our collective level of technological development increases.
That said, as the shift to green tech accelerates, there is increased scrutiny of the supply chains that provide materials for this transition. This has prompted widespread debate in the media about the real benefit of new clean technologies. Do the impacts associated with new technologies mean that they are bad? Is this a ‘gotcha’ moment for green tech, where we should re-evaluate the shift to decarbonised technologies?
Of course, there are strong vested interests in maintaining the status quo, and many would profit from delaying this transition, so criticism must be carefully contextualised. There is, however, a valid question: Are we just substituting one set of environmental problems for another, and how can we appraise the relative advantages and disadvantages in a balanced and even-handed way?
It is impossible to manufacture products without environmental and social impacts. With the technologies we already use daily, risks and impacts have become normalised. As a society, we have grudgingly accepted the impact of oil spills, the petrochemicals industry, local air pollution and the increased mortality that comes from these emissions as a cost of living our lives. Whilst the quantities of critical materials used in new energy technologies sound significant, we need to juxtapose these figures against the impacts of, say, 14,000 tons of coal per day used by some coal power stations.
For scientists to appraise the relative merits of different technologies, tools like life-cycle analysis (LCA) can help us collate and analyse the cumulative impacts from different stages of the product's life cycle – from the impacts during mining raw materials through use and eventual disposal. Green technologies often carry greater impacts at the start of life because of the more diverse range of materials they employ. However, these can be more than offset by the reduced impact in the use phase, as they are much more efficient or do not require the constant consumption of fossil fuels. LCA shows that LIB-powered vehicles have emissions of approximately 20 g CO2-eq/km compared to approximately 200g CO₂/km for petrol and 120g CO₂/km for diesel
We can do many things to mitigate the worst environmental impacts of more raw materials extraction to produce the technologies that will power the green revolution.
Our Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements & Critical Materials outlines many approaches we can take to key materials in our Policy Commission report chaired by Sir John Beddington, “Securing Technology Critical Metals for Britain”.
By recycling critical materials at the end of their lives, together with scrap from manufacturing processes, we can reduce the burden on primary materials extraction and mitigate problems of end-of-life waste management. This is also a particularly sensible approach for the UK, which has limited land mass and no access to primary reserves of many critical materials used in new technology devices. Our ReLIB Project is the UK’s largest research project into the recycling and reuse of LIBs used in Electric Vehicles. Hypromag is currently commercialising processes developed at the University of Birmingham to recycle rare earth magnets.
The transition to cleaner technologies can either be done well or badly – the route we take is our collective choice.