GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Rare Earth Supply and Renewable Energy Demand
Paper Proposal Text :
As the demand on finite fossil fuel resources for our global energy needs continues to increase, so the urgency to find alternative, carbon neutral renewable sources of generation becomes ever more acute. Naturally abundant solar energy is already used to generate electricity using photo-voltaic technology; however, a major barrier is the availability of Rare Earth Elements (REE), used in their manufacture. A reliable and sustainable supply of REE is therefore critical if renewable energy production is to provide any significant contribution to our future energy needs. REE consist of seventeen chemical elements, including the fifteen lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium. Despite their name, rare earth elements are abundant in the Earth's crust; however, REE are typically widely dispersed and found in low concentrations that are not economically exploitable.
Global demand for REE is increasing exponentially due to their use in a plethora of consumables and industrial applications together with increasing demand from rapidly industrialising countries. Current uses for REE include: permanent magnets, batteries, catalysts, computer memory and lighting to name but a fraction. Meanwhile the global supply of REE originates from very few countries, mainly China, who provide over 90% of the global supply and have recently implemented export restrictions including quotas and taxes. Many factors currently limit the supply of REE. Environmentally damaging extraction processes combined with competition for land-use mean that there are many restrictions on mining operations around the world. As relatively high-grade deposits become exhausted and lower-grade deposits are exploited, the energy demand for extraction increases. Furthermore some REE are deposited as trace elements within other commercially extracted minerals so restricting their production to the demand for the primary metal.
A number of strategies employed to cope with limited availability of other materials such as substitution and recycling cannot be so easily applied to REE; Substitution of REE for another material is rarely feasible whilst less than 1% of REE are currently recycled due to the small quantities used and the energy and emissions associated with their extraction. A more efficient option than recycling is proposed for waste containing REE which considers the reuse of components ‘re-manufacturing’ and the recovery and reuse of products ‘refurbishment’.
This paper reports on our ongoing research which investigates the current and future use of REE and their application in technologies such as photo voltaic cells, the aim of this research being to facilitate the refurbishment and re-manufacture of products and components with significant REE content. Photo-voltaic cells are used as a case study to investigate the potential benefits and limitations of using robotic refurbishment and re-manufacturing to facilitate the development of resource efficient, semi/fully automated processes to enable a move towards a closed loop system for these essential resources.