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Technologic Materials for a Decarbonised Economy: the future source of instability? Stampa E-mail
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di Mario A. Rosato | Sustainable Technologies, Barcelona (Spain)


             
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Lo sviluppo nel lungo periodo delle tecnologie energetiche a basse emissioni di carbonio, con un orizzonte al 2050, è intimamente connesso all’incremento della domanda di materiali tecnologici rari, che a sua volta è inseparabile dagli aspetti di tipo geopolitico.
La Commissione europea ha stabilito degli obiettivi per creare un sistema energetico competitivo e a basse emissioni di carbonio entro il 2050. In vista di quest’orizzonte si possono prevedere diversi potenziali scenari in termini di mix energetico.
La chiave di volta per raggiungere l’obiettivo europeo di riduzione delle emissioni di anidride carbonica a lungo termine consisterà proprio nella capacità di individuare lo scenario più probabile per orientare le attuali strategie di pianificazione.
Oltre la necessità di riduzione dei gas climalteranti, propagandata ormai da diversi lustri mediante politiche di sviluppo sostenibile, si pone l’inevitabile problema di gestire gli effetti dovuti ai picchi di energia fossile disponibile, direttamente correlati con la crescita dei Paesi emergenti (Cina e India, per citarne alcuni).

È dunque assolutamente necessario predisporre un mix energetico differenziato per tipologia di fonti. Per tradurre in pratica quest’ultimo obiettivo molti ricercatori stanno sviluppando nuove tecnologie, che a loro volta richiedono l’uso di materiali più o meno esotici, purtroppo per la maggior parte dei casi non disponibili entro i confini del territorio comunitario.
Per tali ragioni gli analisti, specialmente quelli d’Oltreoceano, stanno concentrando le loro forze per evitare nel prossimo futuro spiacevoli tensioni geopolitiche. Il Dipartimento di Energia degli Stati Uniti d’America afferma che: “La transizione energetica avviata vedrà, a medio termine, un sostanziale incremento nella domanda di alcuni materiali critici poiché rari e disponibili solo in alcune limitate zone del Pianeta. In assenza di strategie adeguate sarà improbabile per gli statunitensi riuscire a gestire la transizione verso un’economia basata sull’energia pulita”.
I fenomeni determinati dalla scarsità dei materiali critici, in quanto fondamentali per lo sviluppo delle nuove tecnologie energetiche, e le implicazioni geopolitiche legate al loro approvvigionamento assumono un’importanza notevole nella strategia politica di sviluppo sostenibile. A questo punto si pone il problema dell’inevitabile dipendenza da Paesi extracomunitari, molti dei quali attualmente politicamente instabili.*

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The development of low carbon energy technologies, looking at the 2050 horizon, is intimately related to the increase in the demand of rare technologic materials, which in turn is in close connection to geopolitical aspects.
The European Commission has stated a 2050 objective for the EU of a secure, competitive and low-carbon energy system.
There are a variety of potential scenarios in terms of energy mix that will be deployed by 2050, which will be key to achieving Europe’s long-term decarbonisation goal. In addition to decarbonisation, the effects of peak fossil fuel energy together with the growth of such economies like China and India make absolutely necessary to rely on a wider energy mix. In order to create this mix, new technologies are being developed, which in turn require the use of more or less exotic materials, not always available in the Community’s territory.

The future geopolitical tensions are also foreseen on the other side of the Atlantic. The US Department of Energy stated: The projected energy transition will see a substantial increase in the demand for some critical materials with limited basic availability and limited diversity of supply over the medium term. Left unaddressed, this reality will severely hamper the United States’ ability to transition to a clean energy economy.
The phenomena of critical materials and the geopolitical implications of their sourcing is of outmost importance in order to define the development policies that ensure the least degree of dependency from external, potentially instable Countries.



The role of materials in the development
of energy technologies

The Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan sets out a medium term strategy valid across all sectors. The key energy technologies are as follows: wind, solar, bio energy, smart grids, nuclear fission and CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) and with development and demonstration technologies being, second generation biofuels, smart cities and intelligent networks, electricity storage and electro-mobility, next generation nuclear, renewable heating and cooling.
The main issue for most of these technologies is the resources required in not only the immediate future - which will be significant - but also over the longer timeframe. The transition from conventional energy to the energy system outlined above will place unviable pressure on the dwindling rare earth resources. Quite often this materials criticality aspect is completely omitted from the political discussion.
As stated by the EU expert, David Peck: “The question is not only what technologies can be developed (along with the corresponding material demand) but in what timeframes. In other words - not only what but also when”. This is because the widespread deployment of clean energy technologies could lead to imbalances of supply and demand of, for example, rare earth elements (REEs) along with other critical materials.



Energy and non-energy critical materials
The critical materials list varies with the topics that the different study groups focus on. For instance, the European Commission divides the problem of the criticality of materials in energy and non energy critical materials. This separation can become vague or intersecting in some cases. For instance, phosphorous is an element necessary for agriculture, and its reserves in Europe are diminishing quite quickly. It can be defined as a non energy critical material, but since it is also necessary for the cultivation of crops for biofuels or biomass production, it is also indirectly an energy critical material.
As an example of the lack of uniformity in defining the criticality of the materials, let’s compare two different studies. In the first of them it is possible to observe that the European Commission has analysed 41 materials, finding that 14 of them are to be considered critic, based not only on their technological use but also on the political situation of the Country or Countries that possess the biggest reserves.
In the document Critical raw materials for the EU, Report of the Ad-hoc Working Group on defining critical raw materials the criticality of the 14 cited materials among a total of 41 analysed is summarized in the graphic.

Phosphors (not to be confused with the chemical element phosphorous) are the basic components of cathodic ray tubes and high efficiency fluorescent lamps. They are mainly composed of high purity REE’s (at the top of the criticality diagram). China is currently applying restrictions and tax on the exports of phosphors and rare earths, what makes the production of fluorescent lamps more expensive for Western manufacturers and enhance the competitiveness of the Chinese ones.
This kind of unfair competition has led the EU to start an official dispute against China at the World Trade Organization in December 2009. Said dispute constitutes an early example of the geopolitical tensions that will arise as a result of the new Directives on energy savings. In this concrete case, the result of banning the inefficient incandescence bulbs (which require anyway tungsten, another critical material of the top 14 list) led to an increase in the demand of fluorescent lamps and tubes that cannot be satisfied with the available European resources.

The second study was performed by the American Department of Energy. The approach is slightly different, in the sense that the division is made between short and medium term criticality. Because of the specific mission of the US DOE, the study is 100% focused on energy materials necessary for the production of permanent magnets used in wind turbines and electric drive vehicles, batteries used in vehicles with electric drive trains, thin films used in photovoltaic (PV) cells and phosphors used in fluorescent lighting.
It can be observed how in both studies the focus is mainly set on the high tech aspects. The most critical materials are the rare earths and Platinum Group Metals (PGM). In both studies, lithium is not considered critical (yet), but the growing demand of Li-ion batteries together with inherent political instability of the Countries owning the biggest reserves (China, Bolivia and in lesser extent Chile and Argentina) may soon bring this material to move towards the critical quadrant. The criticality is bigger for the EU than for the USA, since these latter have consistent reserves of lithium.

The sum total of the already critical and potentially critical materials represents a significant proportion of the periodic table of elements. But also low tech commodities are becoming critical too. One example is timber. The European wood panel industry begins to suffer shortage of raw material as a result of the incentives to electric energy production from biomass in the Community’s States.
This situation led to internal tensions in the EU timber industry, as pointed out by European Wood Panel Federation. At the same time, Italy is currently the biggest importer of firewood according to the FAO, mainly from Africa and Latin America. This situation is a latent source of conflicts, if not directly with the Governments of the Countries supplying the firewood, at least with the Italian public opinion and environmentalist organizations, as already denounced by an Italian journalist.
The Author has already proposed elsewhere the use of bamboo as a sustainable alternative to timber. Nevertheless, even a fast growing, high yield giant grass like bamboo risks becoming a critical material. The main producer in the World, China, has started producing blades for the wind turbines in the range of 500 kW to 1,5 MW. As a result bamboo for flooring, furniture and general purposes is becoming scarce and being imported from Vietnam. It is quite possible that China will in the near future set restrictions also on the exports of bamboo plywood, damaging a market that only in the EU is worth about 100 M€.



Conclusion
The development of a low carbon economy has as direct consequence shifting from the dependency on fossil fuels to a new kind of dependency on rare materials, that are necessary for the technological revolution required by the imperative of tackling the global climate change. Since a picture is better than thousand words, the Author wants to close this short article with a map of the new geopolitical weight distribution that the different critical materials will create in the future.

 
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