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 cobalt 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 aluminum production, to produce paper, and for agriculture.
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. 3D-printing and predictive maintenance will play a big part here. Reusing and recycling these materials will also be part of the solution, so we need to figure out how as many materials as possible can be recovered.
There is a 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. In September 2020, on Battery Day, Elon Musk announced that future batteries used in Tesla cars won’t use any cobalt, which is a great start. We expect further improvements in this area within the next years and want to support outstanding teams in this area.
Quantum computers are still at a very early stage but once they are up and running, they will enable endless new possibilities for material science and dramatically accelerate the development of these new materials. Being able to simulate multiple different scenarios in parallel, we will be able to run countless hypothetical simulations, creating new materials with exactly the desired properties for different applications. For this, further research is needed not only in quantum physics but also in developing quantum algorithms. We already know today what quantum computers will be able to do in the near future, so several teams are focussing on developing the software-component to this disruptive innovation.
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