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Clean energy bottlenecks: new recycling capacity urgent

Metals play a central role in building Europe’s clean technology value chains and meeting the EU’s 2050 climate-neutrality goal. But at what cost?

In the wake of supply disruptions from the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s conflict in Ukraine, Europe’s lack of resilience for its growing metals needs has become a strategic concern. A new study evaluates how Europe can achieve resource security and reduce strategic dependencies for its energy transition metals.

The sustainability assessment by Leuven University in Belgium concludes ‘firm action’ is needed soon to avoid bottlenecks for several metals that could be in short supply globally by the end of this decade. The graph below reveals how much strain e-mobility and other battery-powered solutions is putting on lithium, dysprosium, cobalt and other metals.

Biggest pressure points

Researchers point out that Europe has a current project pipeline for 540 GWh of lithium-ion battery capacity per year. This is equivalent to roughly nine million electric vehicles. Cathode and anode production capacity is also ramping up, though at a slower pace.

Solar and wind energy are also factors to consider. The 2021 European Solar Initiative aims at restoring and rescaling the solar PV value chain in Europe, after its loss to China, with an initial objective of 20 GW production by 2025.

Europe is a significant producer of wind turbines and a net exporter of components with a current capacity of 15 GW per year. There are ambitions to grow this capacity to meet the demands of the next decade but as yet without formal targets.

Meanwhile, the European Raw Materials Alliance has finalised a pipeline for creating a domestic value chain to supply 20% of Europe’s permanent magnets needs by 2030. This should reduce dependence on China.

Up to 200% demand growth

Aluminium and copper have widespread energy transition uses (plus other energy-saving uses in buildings). By 2050, Europe will see demand equivalent to 30-35% above today’s consumption levels for manufacturing electric vehicles, electricity networks, batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels.

Demand for silicon 50% up on today’s levels will be required if Europe succeeds in reshoring greater solar photovoltaics production and establishing battery anode production – with silicon projected to have a growing use alongside graphite.

Even a moderate level of European domestic magnet production – as reflected in the study’s medium scenario – would transform the European rare earths market. That would require between 90% and 200% extra compared with Europe’s consumption today.

Urgent recycling needs

Recycling already provides between 40% and 55% of Europe’s aluminium, copper, and zinc supply. ‘More metal in stock will become available to recycle by 2050 but future growth will also require improvements to collection and sorting operations, and the prevention of scrap leakage,’ researchers say.

Europe will need a new recycling industry for solar PV panels, which will start reaching end-of-life in meaningful volumes after 2035. Pilot plants are being set up.

‘Europe will need to develop new recycling capacity for electric vehicle batteries,’ it is argued. The first generation are projected to reach end-of-life in significant volumes after 2035.

In a nutshell, by 2050 Europe might well have developed a need for thirty five times as much lithium and twenty-six times more rare earth than today. Instead of 23 000 tons of lithium, 861 000 tons would then be needed per year. 

‘By 2050, recycling can give Europe a major supply source if batteries reach EU recyclers and new recovery technologies are commercialised,’ the report concludes.

The full study, commissioned by metal organisation Eurometeaux, can be found here.

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