Blog: Metals on earth getting exhausted

In the quiet of my den at the start of this new year… well, not so quite in that I was catching up on a lot of industry related commentaries (Okay – I did take catnaps in-between), I couldn’t help but reflect on some of the trade-offs and more importantly the need for broader and more proactive supply chain thinking.

Refelcting the 2010 predictions from the CleanTech Group (RareMetalBlog posting Dec 29th), Prasoon Srivastava’s Dec 31st commentary on the CIOL website caught my attention. Reporting out of New Delhi, Srivastava noted that “Precious metals on the earth are getting exhausted and soon there will be no metals left to help in innovation if proper recovery guidelines are not included in guidelines or legislation on e-waste, primarily for development of green technology equipment”.

The article also cites Rolf Widmer, a project manager with Swiss-based Laboratory for Technology and Society EMPA, “Day-by-day mines are getting deeper and extraction of precious metals is getting exhausted. We have reached the peak level of extraction a few years back and in another decade or so, we will be touching peak extraction level of others metal,” Widmer goes on to pointed out that environmentalist talk about using energy from sun to use as an alternative of fossil fuel but there is need to have metals that can be used to make solar cells at reasonable price.

Elaborating on his argument, Widmer goes on to say that “The big hype about cheap solar cells has to do with completely new composition of metals that can make thin film photo-voltaic cells. Tellurium, a rare metal, can absorb light much better than any other silicon material being currently used to make PV cells. Total production of tellurium on the planet is 150 pounds per year. It is being used in semiconductors at some points but the real future of Tellurium is in making PV cells.” Other rare metals namely gallium and indium are also being used to make products in information and communication technology. Gallium is being used to make LEDs, laser lights and other semiconductors used for making lightening products. Indium is being used to make flat screens for televisions, computers and mobile phone.

According to Widmer, all these metals will reach their peak extraction time in the next five to ten years and that such time, they will be available but at very high prices. Widmer notes that 10 to 50 per cent of indium, gallium and tellurium extracted on earth are used for making Information and communications technology (ICT) and electronics products. He added that there is technology available to recover these materials but pointed out policies of governments on e-waste lack proper instructions.

Widmer goes on to state that the “Economy depends a lot on recovery of metals. Technology is linked to materials. Without availability of metals, you cannot implement technology.”

As Srivastava reports, The Government of India announced in mid-December that it is to come up with draft legislation on e-waste. Widmer stressed that India should include proper guidelines for recovery of rare metals which no one has done so far.

I believe all governments, industry and business leaders need to share a longer term perspective and take the necessary actions to ensure that we continue to innovate and have the necessary infrastructure to mine and recycle materials so as to contiune the drive towards a robust green energy economy.