Study Says World Has Enough Rare Earth Metals for Green Energy

    12 February 2023

    A recent study says there are enough rare earth metals on Earth for new "low-carbon electricity generation" technologies.

    Rare earth metals come from minerals found in countries around the world.

    The researchers said more mining is needed to make more of the valuable metals available to industry. Rare earth metals are in demand for products such as magnets, wind turbines, solar panels and computers. All are part of the "green energy" push to remove carbon gases from electricity generation.

    FILE - Raw Rare Earth ore waiting to be processed at Vital Metals in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada January 16, 2023. (REUTERS/Nayan Sthankiya)
    FILE - Raw Rare Earth ore waiting to be processed at Vital Metals in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada January 16, 2023. (REUTERS/Nayan Sthankiya)

    The researchers said the amount of minerals available is enough to supply a switch to renewable energy. They wrote that the carbon gasses "related to electricity infrastructure may be substantial." But the study said it would be between one and nine percent of the world's budget for carbon gas production.

    The study came out recently in the science publication Joule.

    Zeke Hausfather helped write the study. He is an expert who works at a technology company called Stripe and at Berkeley Earth, a non-profit climate research group. He called the process "big and messy." But he thinks reducing carbon gases, or "decarbonization," can be done. He said he is not worried about the long-term supply of rare earth materials.

    However, the scientists warn that in the early days of the switch to green energy, there will be shortages. For example, there could be a shortage of the element called dysprosium. It is used to make strong magnets. Industry will require three times more of the metal than is produced now. However, there is 12 times more dysprosium available than needed, the researchers said.

    Another element is tellurium, which is used in large groups of solar panels, called solar farms. There is just enough of that material available if the world makes a fast push to solar power, the researchers said. In addition, there are other materials that can be used instead of tellurium if needed.

    Daniel Ibarra is an environment professor at Brown University. He did not take part in the study but knows about lithium shortages. He told the Associated Press that the study was "robust" and "debunks" concerns about running out of rare earth materials. He said the main question is if production of the materials can keep up with demand.

    The United States Geological Survey reports that the countries with the largest supplies of rare earth metals are China, Vietnam, Russia and Myanmar, also known as Burma.

    The study also noted that mining causes pollution. But the scientists said that if the world switches to green energy, the mining will not be a problem.

    Rob Jackson is an energy expert and studies how humans affect the earth, but was not involved in the study. He is a professor at Stanford University. He said even with evidence that there are enough rare earth materials, humans should still be concerned with creating less pollution. "Along with mining more, we should be using less," he said.

    The study centered on the creation of electric power and did not look at the materials used in electric car batteries. Hausfather said that study is too complicated and will be examined by the team next.

    I'm Dan Friedell.

    Dan Friedell adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on a report by the Associated Press.


    Words in This Story

    generation –n. the process of creating something, especially electricity

    wind turbine –n. an electricity generator that uses wind for power

    solar panel –n. a flat device that changes sunlight into electricity

    infrastructure –n. structures, like roads, bridges and power stations, that are needed to operate a modern country

    substantial –adj. a large amount, size or number

    messy –adj. not organized or cared for

    robust –adj. strong or impressive

    debunk –v. to show that something is not true