In a recent study published in the journal Energy Research and Social Science, researchers from India studied the impact of circular economy strategies on supply chains of critical raw materials (CRMs).
Study: Bolstering supplies of critical raw materials for low-carbon technologies through circular economy strategies. Image Credit: MG_vectors/Shutterstock.com
Global Energy Transition and Circular Economy
Currently, the world is shifting towards low-carbon systems and technologies such as battery energy storage systems (BESS), electric vehicles (EVs), and renewable energy. Additionally, 195 countries have signed the Paris Agreement and pledged to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius.
Governments worldwide are aiming to reduce the carbon systems and reframing environmentally friendly policies. For example, the Biden Administration aims to make the power sector carbon-free by 2035, and the solar and wind installed capacity in the United States (US) is expected to increase from 180 GW to 1329 GW by 2050.
This global energy transition may result in significant increases in CRM demand. CRMs are economically and strategically critical materials whose supply is at risk due to various social, economic, and political factors.
In the present study, researchers have focused on two significant circular economy strategies with a higher scale-up potential than other strategies. Additionally, their results were focused on five circular economy scenarios that examined the impact of different collection and recycling rates on CRM.
The methodology used by the researchers was a literature review, data collection, and data analysis. Further, based on the data analysis, the researchers identified essential data for improving CRMs supply chain.
Current Situation of CRMs Recycling and Recovery
CRM recycling from low-carbon technologies may become more feasible due to the design for the recycling approach used by the manufacturers. However, adapting the design for recycling approach for a wide range of products without affecting its cost and functionality is yet a challenge.
Currently, sorting and recycling technologies are not able to compete with the low prices of virgin CRMs. As EVs are in high demand, the CRM metals associated with lithium-ion batteries are critical for the circular economy. Most recycling processes prioritize the recovery of cobalt and nickel because of their high value.
In contrast, less valuable metals like lithium and manganese are rarely recovered. The collection volumes of batteries are likely higher due to well-established automobile collection channels and short battery life.
Solar panels are mostly recycled for glass and scrap metal in existing recycling plants. The process of copper recycling for wind turbines is well-established and currently working at high rates of recycling.
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Additionally, some metals end up in the wrong recycling stream due to EOL products' current sorting and collection approach. A dedicated collection system for each product type is used in some regions to resolve this issue.
The findings of the review indicate that in 2050, based on existing global practices, less than 15% of specific CRMs could come from EOL recovery. The highly ambitious strategies with 100% collection and maximum potential recycling efficiency can only meet 37% to 91% of CRM demand in 2050.
Although significant challenges such as developing robust collection frameworks and implementing efficient recycling technologies are yet to be resolved, the researchers suggest that complete collection and recycling of EOL can reduce the risk of the limited supply of CRMs. Recycling low-carbon technologies can provide both economic value and job opportunities. Additionally, by 2050, recoverable materials from PV panels can value up to $15 billion.
The results presented by researchers also show that improvement in collection systems without improving recycling can have a variety of effects on technology recovery pathways. Furthermore, increasing EOL material collection rates without increasing recycling rates is ineffective for EVs, BESS, and solar panels.
The development of technologies that recover lithium is critical for the long-term sustainability of its supply chain. Wind turbines are recycled at high rates, but higher collection rates in wind turbines do not balance with the high recycling rates. Hence, there is a need for improved turbine collection practices.
Additionally, the development of recycling and sorting technologies may significantly impact the recovery of CRMs from a wide range of products. Moreover, improvement in collection systems may also significantly impact the circular economy.
The present study demonstrates that most CRMs can benefit from circular economy strategies and support their supply chains in the future. While it is technically possible to recover all CRMs, the lack of a robust economic driver limits current recovery efforts.
The results show that improved collection and recycling technologies could help meet 37% to 91% demand for CRMs in 2050. A transition that combines a circular economy and low-carbon path would reduce resource depletion and minimize CRM supply disruptions.
Nihan Karali, Nihar Shah, Bolstering supplies of critical raw materials for low-carbon technologies through circular economy strategies, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 88, 2022, 102534, ISSN 2214 -6296, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S221462962200041X?via%3Dihub