A man wearing protective gloves sorting flattened beverage cans on a conveyor belt for recycling


Metals as non-renewable, critical resources

Metals play a pivotal role in modern societies. They are used for many products and processes such as electrical wiring, electric motors, generators, wind turbines, photovoltaics, high performance alloys, computers, cars, airplanes, chemicals synthesis, hydrogen economy, strong magnets and many more in different sectors such as transportation and electromobility, communication, digitalization, among others. In other words, they are indispensable for our daily life but also for our standard of living and healthy life.

Electronic waste on a shop board with two workers in the background selecting parts for recycling and a hand of a third worker coming from the left side, also selecting parts.
Twwo men with safety goggles examining a solar panel in an indoor setting

Metals are of paramount importance for the energy transition and low-carbon technologies

They also play an important role for carbon dioxide emission reduction (low carbon often means high metal). Thus, metals are indispensable for a more sustainable future. Metals matter!
For example, in order to reach the goals of the Paris agreement a lot of hope is placed in low carbon technologies. De-fossilization of electricity, mobility and industry can prevent further climate change. However, this results in a highly increased metals demand (“low carbon-high metal”).

Metals are non-renewable resources and critical for many technologies and sectors as they offer unique but multiple general properties and functions common to all metals and at the same time often unique properties and functions related to a specific one.
This is the reason why they are used literally everywhere. The specific properties and function offered by specific metals is often the reason why one metal cannot easily be replaced by another one. In contrast to many other materials used for products, metals cannot be synthesized. They are only formed within the life cycle of stars. In other word they are a very limited resource. They are not renewable. Their use comes along with unavoidable losses. These reduce the availability of metals but can also result in environmental pollution. This is of interest as many metals are on the one hand indispensable for life and on the other toxic to life, depending on chemical species and concentration. The same holds in many respects for metalloids such as silicon and others.

Therefore, it is of utmost importance to better understand how metals can be used more sustainable. We are also interested in a more general approach to compare resources demand and reasons for it in the context of supply with availability of metal resources and to assess its sustainability impact. Sound management and effective recycling appear to be crucial to reduce dissipation of non-renewable resources, such as metals.

One building block in this context is to create awareness for these very special matters going beyond their mere economic value. Some of this work is done in cooperation within Dr. Martin Held from Evangelische Akademie Tutzing and other partners.

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