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The rare earth metals and other critical materials for the energy transition

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Three Enel Foundation researchers, Nicolò SartoriSilvia Burgos Rodríguez and Luca Spinosa, have published an article highlighting the importance of rare earth metals and other critical materials to the energy transition. The piece, published by Ecco, Italian climate think tank, underlines how the electrification of final consumption, the greater penetration of renewable energy sources, the importance of intelligent distribution networks, and the use of green hydrogen, are all fundamental factors in the process of decarbonisation. The technology involved in these systems requires the use of certain materials that are also essential for other industrial sectors such as IT and automotive. They comprise metals such as copper, lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and platinum, in addition to the 17 rare earth metals, which include scandium, neodymium and dysprosium.

Differently to fossil fuels, these key materials for the energy transition can be recycled or in certain cases substituted. If developed respecting sustainability standards, they offer notable economic potential and could give rise to mining activities in various parts of the world, that should be mitigated by innovative eco-technology solutions applied to the products, and by circular economy techniques applied to their end-of-life recovery.

Evidently, the concentration of both resources and processing infrastructure clusters in certain parts of the world could cause procurement problems in the case of political, economic and social turmoil. To avoid bottlenecks in sourcing, international governance is essential to prevent the creation of opposing blocs. Examples of this sort of policy are the European Raw Materials Alliance (ERMA) launched by the EU, and other analogous operations in the United States, China, Australia and Japan. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has proposed its Collaborative Framework on Critical Materials for the Energy Transition, in order to improve communications amongst its 167 members, which include Italy and the EU, in the process towards clean energy. The Critical Raw Material Action Plan reconfirmed by Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, provides guidelines on the technological developments that could prevent a dependency on refined products arriving from nations such as China, by improving EU countries’ capacity for recycling these fundamental elements. In conclusion, the three Enel Foundation researchers say that – if policy planning and adequate investment are put in place in due time - critical materials will not slow the energy transition and the fight against climate change.

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