The Future of Environment and Natural Resources

Current situation and challenges

A rapidly growing world population with growing consumption is taking its toll on the planet. Electric cars and wind turbines need powerful permanent magnets which are manufactured using rare earths such as neodymium and dysprosium and their mining is highly problematic for the environment. The Cobald in Lithium-Ion batteries is often mined under inhumane conditions and the mining of Lithium is even causing desertification in some regions.

And as ubiquitous as electronic devices are nowadays, the usage of rare resources in the electronics industry is high - not only for batteries and permanent magnets, but also tantalum for capacitors, indium for touchscreens, gallium for semiconductors and LEDs - just to name a few prominent examples - and all of them are rare and difficult to extract.

But there are limited resources far more crucial for our lives than rare metals. The rainforest is destroyed to mine bauxite for aluminium production, to produce paper, and for agriculture. Food is another problem, together with water.

Freigeist’s view on technologies

Our planet cannot be saved by people lowering their standard of living to be more sustainable, only. We need fundamental technologies to find smart and sustainable alternatives for those limited resources.

A promising approach is to reduce the demand for those critical resources by increasing efficiency in the manufacturing process and expanding the lifespan of the products. Reusing and recycling these materials will be another part of the solution, so we need to figure out how as many materials as possible can be recovered.

And then there is the search for new materials that can serve as sustainable substitutes for critical materials in the industry. They need to be cleaner in production, safer in disposal or recycling, and/or more durable. Ongoing research has shown that it should be possible to replace a majority of rare metals by carbon nanomaterials. For example, Graphene and carbon nanotubes could replace Indium and Gallium, which are widely used in the electronics industry.

The usage of Quantum computers will enable new possibilities for material science and push the development of these new materials.

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