updated 11/11/2010 5:15:20 PM ET 2010-11-11T22:15:20

Breaking the fossil fuel addiction has a lot of nice benefits, but increasing energy security is not one of them, say researchers studying supply and demand of scarce metals used in making solar panels, wind generators and other alternative energy technologies.

There is a long list of elements, mostly rare metals, that are currently mined only in a handful of countries. Without them a lot of new technologies would be stopped in their tracks. What's needed are new sources, which means more mining and better technologies for extracting the useful metals from ores.

"We are almost completely dependent on imports," said geologist James Burnell of the Colorado Geological Survey. "Trade wars are developing with the rare earth elements."

Burnell is slated to present a paper about the resource demands of alternative energy technologies on Nov. 2 at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver.

Elements such as gallium, indium, selenium, tellurium and high-purity silicon are needed to make photovoltaic panels. For high capacity batteries like those used in hybrid and electric cars, manufacturers need zinc, vanadium, lithium and rare earth elements. Fuel cells require platinum group minerals.

One of the world's biggest suppliers and consumers of scarce metals game is none other than China, said Burnell. They are already beginning to throw their weight around. A possible sign of what's ahead for many important elements may be China's recent announcement about the element indium, which is used to make flat panel displays. China supplies the world with indium, Burnell said.

"They put the world on notice that they will stop exporting indium in the future," said Burnell.

Another strategic element that China could soon stop exporting is neodymium, which is used to make high-strength magnets for gearless wind generators. China is planning on building 330 giga-watts of wind generator capacity within its own borders. That will require more neodymium than they currently export, Burnell said.

Other big players are Chile and Argentina, which supply the Western world with lithium, cobalt and manganese.

"The bottom line is that we really have to look for more," said Burnell. There is a disconnect in the public mind about alternative energy tech and the mining required to get the elements needed for those technologies, he added.

"There are 30 pounds of rare earth metals in a Prius," said Burnell. Those have to be mined somewhere and if they are not mined domestically, there are energy security issues.

Among the countries that are particularly concerned about by China's announced slowdown in exporting some rare earth elements is Japan, said Yasushi Watanabe of the Institute for Geo-Resources and Environment in Tsukuba, Japan. Watanabe is also scheduled to present a paper on the matter at the same meeting.

Among the things Watanabe is looking at are the sorts of rocks that need to be explored to find new sources in other countries. There will also be a great need to find new ways to extract the valuable metals from different ores in which they are found, he said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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