Friday, 9 October 2015

Materials required for electricity generation

Copied from pages: Quadrennial Technology Review - An Assessment Of Energy Technologies And Research Opportunities, September 2015, Chapter 10, pages 389-391

All energy technologies require materials, but the types and amounts of materials consumed vary widely. Some technologies require only common, plentiful materials such as steel, glass, and concrete, but many require varying amounts of rare materials such as noble metals. Moreover, the degree of material recycling varies widely from technology to technology and material to material, and design, as well as consumer behavior and social attitudes can have a big impact on how easily recyclable certain materials will be. Identifying materials and understanding their flows including reuse, remanufacture, recycling, and disposal are key to the inventory step in LCA. Examples of material inventories for electric power plants are presented in the table below. Key materials by mass per energy lifetime include steel, concrete, cement, glass, and aluminum.[1]

Range of materials requirements (fuel excluded) for various electricity generation technologies[4]

Generator onlyUpstream energy collection plus generator
Materials (ton/TWh)CoalNGCCNuclear PWRBiomass HydroWindSolar PV (silicon)Geothermal HT binary

Key: NGCC = natural gas combined cycle; PWR = pressurized water reactor; PV = photovoltaic; HT = high temperature

An important recent concept in the area of materials use is “criticality,” which is classified in terms of importance to the clean energy economy, risk of supply disruption, and time horizon.[2] Critical materials have important magnetic, catalytic, and luminescent properties, with applications in solar PV, wind turbines, electric vehicles and efficient lighting. Five rare earth metals (dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium, and yttrium), as well as indium, were assessed as most critical between 2010 and 2015. Four other rare earth elements, as well as gallium, tellurium, cobalt, and lithium, were also considered. Important factors include high demand, limited substitutes, political or regulatory risks in countries where critical materials are produced, lack of diversity in producers, and competing technology demand (e.g., consumer electronics such as mobile phones, computers, and TVs all use materials that are also essential to clean energy technologies).[3] See Figure below for an illustration of a variety of these materials in terms of their importance to clean energy technologies versus risk to supply.

While many so-called rare earths are in fact more plentiful than gold and highly dispersed around the world, they are expensive to separate from ore owing in part to how similar their chemical properties are to each other. Recycling, reuse, and more efficient use of critical materials could significantly lower demand for new materials; currently, only 1% of critical materials are recycled at end of life. Other priorities include diversification of global supplies, environmentally sound extraction and processing, and development of substitutes[5], [6] (see Chapter 9, Section 9.2.2 for DOE RDD&D efforts in critical materials through the Critical Materials Institute).As some technologies could significantly increase or decrease the criticality of certain materials, it is important to include a criticality metric in assessments.

  1. Argonne National Laboratory. “GREET 1 2014.” 2014.
  2. U.S. Department of Energy. “US Department of Energy Critical Materials Strategy.” 2010.
  3. Matulka, R. “Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Critical Materials.” U.S. Department of Energy, January 18, 2013. Accessed February 21, 2015.
  4. Argonne National Laboratory. “GREET 2 2014.” 2014.
  5. U.S. Department of Energy, 2010. Critical Materials Strategy, December. (accessed 21 February 2015).
  6. National Petroleum Council. “Securing Oil and Natural Gas Infrastructures in the New Economy.” Washington, DC, 2001.
  7. U.S. Department of Energy, 2010. Critical Materials Strategy, December. (accessed 21 February 2015).

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