NERC invests £8m in research into elements crucial for developing low-carbon technologies

10 November 2015

NERC is investing just over £8m in research to ensure we have access to elements needed for a variety of environmental technologies that will provide cleaner energy and more efficient energy usage.

These elements, known as e-tech elements, are used in lithium car batteries, solar panels and wind turbines and include cobalt, tellurium, selenium, neodymium, indium, gallium and heavy rare earth elements.

Thin, cheap solar panels need tellurium, which makes up a meagre 0.0000001% of the Earth's crust, making it three times rarer than gold. High-performance batteries need lithium, which is only easily extracted from briny pools in the Andes. Platinum, needed as a catalyst in fuel cells that turn hydrogen into energy, comes almost exclusively from South Africa.

Right now, these elements are just by-products of extracting more common minerals, and haven't been widely mined on a commercial scale before. Now, two global pressures on the use of mineral resources are putting environmental issues into the spotlight.

Firstly, population growth and greater consumption of natural resources are pushing the demand for these minerals to new levels. Secondly, global efforts to protect the environment and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are increasing demand for metals that support low-carbon technologies.

Professor Duncan Wingham, NERC chief executive, said:

"Our investment in this much-needed research is needed to help industry develop low-carbon technologies that will reduce the UK's carbon footprint. The projects we're announcing will help address the global security of supply of elements that are essential to these environmental technologies, and help develop methods to extract and recover them while minimising the environmental impact of this activity."

Juliet Davenport OBE, CEO of Good Energy and a member of NERC Council, said:

"More research into this area is to be welcomed as it will have an important bearing on the future of the UK's renewable energy industry. Solar panels and batteries which can store renewable electricity rely on certain elements, so it's vital we're able to source them. It's essential that the industry develops knowledge and expertise on how to source these elements in the least impactful way to the environment, and the NERC research will help address this."

The new research aims to find out more about how the elements behave within the Earth and the environmental implications of mining them, through four projects.

NERC's Security of Supply of Minerals programme will enhance global security of supply of these e-tech elements in two ways: through improved understanding of how they move through natural systems, and by using this information to develop better ways of recovering them to reduce the environmental damage this currently causes.

  • The Tellurium and Selenium Cycling and Supply (TeaSe) project, led by Dr Daniel Smith of the University of Leicester, aims to identify and quantify the key processes and conditions that control how selenium and tellurium cycle through the Earth's crust, and how they become concentrated in certain places.
  • The SoS RARE project, led by Professor Frances Wall of the University of Exeter, seeks to understand the movement and concentration of neodymium and heavy rare earth elements in natural systems, and to develop new processes that will lower the environmental impact of rare earth element extraction and recovery.
  • The principal aim of the CoG3 project, led by Professor Richard Herrington of the Natural History Museum, is to understand the natural behaviour and biogeochemistry of cobalt to develop and apply new processing strategies using living organisms to extract and recover the element.
  • The MarineE-tech project, led by Dr Bramley Murton of NERC's National Oceanography Centre, will enhance our understanding of marine seafloor ferromanganese deposits.

Further information

Tamera Jones
01793 411561
07917 557215


Notes

1. This announcement coincides with a Security of Supply of Minerals programme launch event at the Natural History Museum on 10 November 2015.

2. The security of supply of minerals resources programme centres on four competitively-won projects that directly involve over 50 industrial partners and some 20 plus universities and research organisations. It directly funds 24 postdoctoral research associates and 17 PhD researchers, and seeks to deliver world-leading research and world-leading scientists in this emerging area.

3. The £13·5m research programme includes £8·2m funding from NERC, £2m from NERC through the Newton Fund, £2m from FAPESP and £1·4m from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

4. Principal investigators for the four projects:

Tellurium and Selenium Cycling and Supply (TeaSe)

Dr Daniel Smith
University of Leicester

SoS RARE - Security of Supply of Rare Earth Elements

Professor Frances Wall
University of Exeter

CoG3: The geology, geometallurgy and geomicrobiology of cobalt resources leading to new product streams

Professor Richard Herrington
Natural History Museum

FAPESP Marine ferromanganese deposits - a major resource of E-tech elements (MarineE-tech)

Dr Bramley Murton
National Oceanographic Centre

This project is funded by the Newton programme along with FAPESP and is focused on seabed deposits.