Business & Finance Finance

Demand for Rare Earth Metals Increases With the Growth in Clean Energy Technology

Copyright (c) 2012 Alison Withers

Global warming, climate change and the finite nature of energy sources such as coal and oil have increased the importance of clean energy technology, or sources of renewable energy.

As the cost of commodities like oil continues to rise, generating electricity from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and tidal power has been growing dramatically across the world for several years.

Since around halfway through the first decade of the 21st Century worldwide renewable energy capacity increased by 10-60% annually for many technologies, in particular wind power growth accelerated in 2009 compared with the preceding four years and solar power supplying countries' energy grids increased by 60% on average. In 2012 the share of renewables in electricity generation has reached approximately 19%.

Rare Earth Metals play an important role in clean energy technology, and are used in the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines in particular. REMs are also crucial to the production of many of the electronic equipment that individuals take for granted, such as mobile phones and PCs, and are essential to the batteries that power hybrid electric vehicles.

This has all focused attention on REMs as a commodity with an increasing value for investors and commodities traders.

Variability of supply is one of the issues that affects electricity derived from renewable sources. Sunshine is not consistent, nor does wind blow steadily and constantly. This means that the long term storage of electricity generated is an important factor in the equation.

One particular REM is likely to play a part in this and it is vanadium, first discovered in 1801 by Andrés Manuel del Río. It is a hard, silvery grey transition metal found only in chemically combined form in nature. It can be isolated from these compounds and has some very important properties.

Vanadium is found naturally in as many as 65 different minerals and in fossil fuel deposits, such as oil. It is primarily used to reinforce steel and produce speciality steel alloys. The chassis of the Model T Ford was the first large-scale industrial use of vanadium in steels.

In the context of renewable energy, however, vanadium in one of its oxidised forms can be used to make the vanadium redox battery that can provide unlimited capacity by using larger and larger storage tanks. It can be left completely discharged for long intervals without harm and can be recharged by replacing the electrolyte.

These qualities mean it can be used in large power storage applications and can help to average out the production of highly variable generation sources such as wind and solar energy.

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