Demand for critical minerals for clean energy technologies is set to rise sharply, more than doubling from today’s level by 2030 in the IEA's Announced Pledges Scenario. The critical minerals that experience the fastest rates of demand growth include silicon and silver for solar PV, rare earth elements for wind turbine motors and lithium for batteries. In the Net Zero Emissions Scenario, lithium sees the fastest rise among the key minerals, with demand surging by 26‐times between today and 2050. According to IRENA, the price for Lithium grew by five-fold in 2021 and it’s still going up.
Continued technology innovation and recycling are vital options to ease strains on critical minerals markets. High reliance on individual countries such as China for critical mineral supplies and for many clean technology supply chains is a risk for transitions, but so too are diversification options that close off the benefits of trade. These experts discuss how we can better leverage technology to enable battery and solar panel recycling, extend the product lifetime of energy assets, encourage a more circular economy in renewable energy and overcome supply chain challenges.
Eicke Weber is Co-Chair of the European Solar Manufacturing Council, Senior Advisor at the cleantech advisory Apricum, President of the German Scholars Organization, a Professor of Materials Science at University of California Berkeley and was Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems for 10 years. He believes we must alter our entire approach to enable a circular economy. "We have had 150 years of a happy life where we just bountifully exploit what earth has saved for us for hundreds of millions of years and this cannot go on like this," he says. "Future generations have to live in a circular economy and of course talking about renewable energy, we should be at the forefront of that circular economy."
Jakob Bitner, Co-Founder and CEO of VoltStorage, a company that uses redox flow technology to produce next generation batteries, agrees. He points out: "we will not be able to make this energy transition to 100% renewables with lithium only and for that we will need alternatives. To give you an example, if we were to power Germany for 24 hrs with electricity from lithium ion batteries, we’d need the amount of lithium we produce in four years time globally."
Yun Luo, CEO of ROSI Solar says when it comes to recycling solar panels, "we have technical challenges from A-Z…in all aspects." Only by joining forces and collating expertise can we enable "a viable and sustainable re-injection of these materials that big scale industry can profit from."
Recycling batteries poses similar challenges - but also huge opportunities. Roman Alberti is the Co-Founder of Voltfang, a startup that requalifies electrical vehicle batteries after their first life into storage systems. He says, "it is very hard to get the quality out of resources that we are putting into them in the first place. The recycling has to evaluate better and better over the next years." He believes we need to not only extend the product lifetime as much as possible but also make recycling as efficient as possible.