Monday, 30 September 2019

The Wonders of Rare Metals

This longer than usual post is based on a presentation I gave at the York Festival of Ideas last June. There is some overlap with previous and soon to be posts ('The false promise of green growth', 'Lifting the taboo: a word on societal collapse'), yet enough new material to make this a different read. Following the talk, I was interviewed by Anthony Day for his Sustainables Furtures Report podcast. You can listen to our discussion, read the transcript, and subscribe to this very informative and balanced podcast here [1].

During the 2018 Festival of Ideas, I hosted an Urban Mining workshop based on a template developed by the Dutch company Fairphone [2]. This sparked my interest for the supply chains of metals, in particular those used in electronic devices and thus in most modern technologies. This is a very broad topic and aspects of it are very current, so I do not pretend to be exhaustive, nor do I pretend to be neutral as I share the reflections that this research has inspired in me.


What do I mean by 'rare metals'? I borrowed this appellation from a book entitled La guerre des métaux rares (The war over rare metals, my translation) published last year and written by French journalist Guillaume Pitron [3]. As I soon found out, this is not a standard appellation, but to dispel any confusion from the start: 'rare metals' might not be 'rare' in terms of abundance and they generally include but are not restricted to the chemical elements of the lanthanide series called the 'rare earths elements' or REEs. In fact, the appellation is strategic. 'Rare metals' are used for example in ICT, medical, 'green' and military technologies, therefore countries with the current reliance on and capacity to develop these technologies strongly feel the need to guarantee the security of their supply chains.

Figure 1: The Periodic Table of the Elements

Let us consider the periodic table (Figure 1 above). The elements are ordered in rows in increasing order of atomic number, which represents the number of protons in their nuclei. The columns, or periods, contain elements with similar electronic structures and hence similar chemical properties. I have highlighted (in two shades of pink, yellow and dark blue) some of the metallic elements mentioned by G. Pitron as well as on a helpful MIT student project website [4]. Most of these elements are on the EU list of critical raw materials, i.e. materials that are of high economic importance because key to industry sectors that create added value jobs, which could be lost for lack of adequate supplies or substitutes, and that are vulnerable to supply disruptions. There is no domestic production for most of those materials, and often the supply of a particular element is concentrated within the hands of only few countries. The associated risks are in many cases compounded by low substitution and low recycling rates [5]. The EU is not the only organisation to worry about supply chain issues, individual countries do as well: the UK is running a research initiative called SoS Minerals (for Security of Supplies), a multi-million pound research programme with the aim
to focus on the science needed to sustain security of supply of strategic elements that underpin current and future green technologies – the so-called e-tech elements: Cobalt, Tellurium, Selenium, Neodymium, Indium, Gallium, HREEs (Heavy Rare Earth Elements) [6].

Below, I investigate more closely the metals circled in red: Neodymium (Nd), one of the rare earth elements (which gives an opportunity to discuss the lanthanides as a group); Indium (In), a key component of any touch screen; Lithium (Li), which is increasingly used in batteries; Tin (Sn), an old-hand, which has been mined since ca 2500 BCE together with tantalum (Ta), both conflict minerals extensively used in electronic applications. It is important to notice that until the 70s, about 20 different metals were used in technologies, then since the beginning of the 21st century, we've been using about 60 different metals, increasing the level of mining and pressures on the Earth's crust.

REEs (Rare Earth Elements), in particular Neodymium

The REEs, correspond to the lanthanides series with the addition of yttrium (Y) and scandium (Sc). They are split into Light REEs (LREEs: from Lanthanum to Gadolinium) and Heavy REEs (HREEs: Yttrium and from Terbium to Lutetium); scandium stands on its own and promethium (Pm) is a radioactive metal, which doesn't occur naturally on Earth. According to the US Geological Survey, many of the REEs have key applications in 21st century technologies and the list offered highlights their strategic aspect. They are used in ICT, with cell phones, computers, flat-screen monitors; in 'green technologies', e.g. in high-strength magnets used in wind turbines generators and batteries of hybrid and electric vehicles, or in energy efficient light bulbs; in defence applications, e.g. in components of jet engines, missile guidance systems, antimissile defence systems, satellites and communication systems [7].

Figure 2: Neodymium [8]
Neodymium (shown in Figure 2 above) enters the composition of NdFeB (neodymium, iron, boron) permanent magnets, which are made from a compacted magnetised powder, a porous, brittle and quick to rust material, which is protected by a nickel coating. Such magnets are capable of lifting a thousand times their own weight and have allowed for increased miniaturisation in any device involving motors and generators. Having had the opportunity to handle coin sized NdFeB magnets during a 'Build a small wind turbine' short course at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, I can vouch for their impressive strength and the fact that you have to watch your fingers when manipulating them [9]. The description of the magnets in the online store reads:
Neodymium magnets are relatively new, they were developed in the mid 1980s and can now be found extensively in countless modern applications from fridge magnets to wind turbines! Since the introduction of neodymium magnets, the manufacturing cost of neodymium magnets has fallen in line with a massive increase in production capability and now small neodymium magnets are cheap enough to be used in low cost promotional giveaway items. [10]

Having read about the human and environmental cost of extracting REEs (see below), I do cringe internally at this last detail.

Rare Earths are not particularly rare. Figure 3 below show the relative abundance of the elements and we see for example that neodymium is more abundant than lead. However, REEs are difficult to refine and isolate and rarely occur in economically viable deposits.

Figure 3: Relative abundance of the chemical elements [11]

The first rare earth elements were discovered in 1789, when a Swedish lieutenant and part-time chemist named Carl Arrhenius visited a feldspar mine in Ytterby, near Stockholm, when looking for a suitable location for a new fort. He noticed a heavy black rock he had never seen before and sent a sample for further analysis to his friend Johan Gadolin, a chemistry professor at the Royal Academy of Turku in Finland (which was then part of Sweden). Analysing the strange rock, Gadolin soon realised almost 40% of it was made from a metal that had never been seen before and he called this new element a ‘rare earth’. It took scientists nearly a century to realise that this ‘rare earth’ contained four distinct elements, now named: yttrium (Y), erbium (Er), terbium (Tb), and ytterbium (Yb); later three other REEs were found in the same quarry [see e.g. 12]. To understand why isolating these elements was so challenging, we need to have a closer look at their electronic structure.

An element has as many electrons as it has protons. The electrons move at high speeds around the nucleus, and their exact location and trajectory is unknown: they do not follow orbits, like planets do about the sun, but 'orbitals', defined to be the region in space where they are most likely to be. Orbitals are not random, the electrons are most likely to be found in ‘shells’ increasingly distant from the atom's nucleus. Lower energy shells, which normally correspond to the ones closest to the nucleus, are filled in first. In chemistry, the relevant electrons are those located on the outermost shell, called the valence electrons: they are further away from the nucleus and thus more likely to react with nearby atoms to form chemical bonds. Elements with the same number of valence electrons will have similar ‘bounding behaviour’ and chemical properties. Now with the REEs, something particular happens. As the atomic number increases when we move along the rows of the periodic table, so does the number of electrons. Past lanthanum the new electrons are used to fill gaps in an inner shell rather than on the outermost shell so that the number of valence electrons remains the same for the whole lanthanide series: chemically, they are interchangeable. The mineral found in Ytterby was named gadolinite in 1800, after the Finnish chemist’s surname. Its chemical formula is (Ce,La,Nd,Y)2FeBe2Si2O2 (see Figure 4). The bracket means that either of the four REEs mentioned can be part of the mineral's composition. They were first differentiated not by a chemist, but by the physicist Henry Moseley who devised a technique using X-ray spectrum to measure the atomic number of an element [see e.g. 13].

Figure 4: Gadolinite [14]
Even though REEs are not rare compared to other commonly mined elements, they are only produced in small quantities in a limited number of countries, for the following reasons [see e.g. 15]:
  • Deposits of REEs that are large enough and concentrated enough to mine economically are very rare. On average, to obtain 1kg of cerium, miners would need to purify 16 tonnes of rock; to obtain 1 kg of lutecium, 1200 tons of rocks would be required [3].
  • The electronic structure of REEs is such that they often occur together in minerals and the REE resource in a deposit may be locked in multiple mineral structures, e.g. in silicate, phosphate or carbonate minerals, which will require different processing techniques. To fix ideas, compare the complexity of gadolinite given above or that of the primary ore mineral in the world's largest REE deposits, bastnasite [Ce, La, Y]CO3F, with for example the lead containing mineral galena with formula PbS or the zinc containing mineral sphalerite with formula ZnS. This makes extraction and separation of individual REEs a complex, multiple step process – and with each step comes demands in energy and waste production.
  • Following from the previous point, the refining of the elements creates hazardous waste, including radioactive waste, which increases costs and has legal implications in many countries.

Where are REEs produced? Figure 5 below gives the world mine production of rare earth oxydes from 1960 to 2012 [see e.g. 7, 15]. Two features strike out: China holds a near monopoly and the production of REEs has increased exponentially, in line with the development of modern technologies.

Figure 5: World mine production of rare earth oxides
From the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, the United States was the world’s largest REE-producing country entirely through the output of the Mountain Pass mine in southeastern California. The mine had been open nearly continuously between 1953 and 2002 and its operation were closed in view of environmental concerns [3]. Production resumed from 2012 to 2015, most probably due to the high strategic value of REEs and the need to secure supplies. The mine closed again to reopen in 2017 [7]. Since relying on China is uncomfortable, research is progressing notably in the US and Japan to identify further resources and to find ways of recycling old electronics, but the production from such sources remains marginal or under development - less than 1% of REEs are currently recycled [15]. One US attempt I came across, which has reached industrial scale testing, involves reclaiming REEs from coal. This approach is developed at the University of Kentucky and looks promising, however, it involves extracting the coal first, something we need to wean ourselves from if we are to avert dramatic global warming [see e.g 16].

Back in the 1990s, China embraced the pollution. Deng Xiaoping is quoted to have said in 1992 that: "The Middle East has petrol, but China has rare earths". In the late 1980s, the Chinese began mining their own REE deposits, fully processing their ores to separate the individual REEs for use in products they also manufactured. By 2011, they controlled the global market by supplying 95% of processed REEs, then between 2011 and 2017, China produced approximately 84% of the world’s REEs. Yet the price to pay for these highly polluting, deregulated and low margins mining operations is extremely high. The mining process involves crushing and grinding the rocks down to offer more surface area to chemical reactants; increasing the ore content via various methods of separation; isolating elements using heat, acid or alkaline baths. All this requires chemicals, water and energy in important quantity, and all stages of the purification produces waste. According to a report by China Water Risk, a non-profit initiative aiming to facilitate good governance of China's limited water resources, the production of 1 ton of REEs comes with 60 000 metre cubed of waste gas containing hydrochloric acid; 20 metre cubed of acid-containind sewage water; 1 to 1.4 tons of radioactive waste [17]. As a result, local water sources are polluted with acids, once fertile fields no longer produce food, local villagers see incidences of cancer increase [see e.g. 3,17,18]. There are also many instances of illegal rare earth mining in China (almost 60% for HREEs [15]) for which environmental regulations and proper decommissioning is non-existent. I quoted in a previous post journalist Tim Maughan's reaction to discovering the dystopian toxic waste lake of Baotou in Inner Mongolia [18]; G. Pitron talks of "cancer villages" [3]; China Water Risks's report talks of "a death curse on nearby villages" [17]. Since 2006, the Chinese government has been putting measures in place to regulate and organise the industry in particular so that stricter environmental guidelines can be followed, but this proves challenging, also when providing such a key resources to global partners as part of an economic system that privileges free trade and profits over environmental concerns [see e.g. the comments on the 2010 WTO dispute in 17]. I wrote before, and I insist again now that our so-called 'clean' or 'green' technologies, who are reliant on the mining of REEs, are neither green nor clean – simply, we have exported the pollution to other countries, yet the damage to populations and ecosystems is only too real. If we genuinely think that's a price worth paying, then we should pay it ourselves. Or perhaps, we need to completely re-imagine what a low carbon future could be like, with some urgency.


Indium is a metal so soft it can be cut with your kitchen knife, and if you're reading this blog on a touchscreen, then you're holding some in your hands. The type of screens typically found on tablets and smartphones are called capacitive touchscreens. As your finger presses down, a small electric charge is transferred to it, creating a voltage drop at that spot on the screen. A controller locates the precise location of the pressure and orders the relevant action. For this system to work, the glass of the screen needs to be coated with a transparent, conducting material. ITO – Indium Tin Oxide – has just the perfect properties. Indium has also been dubbed a 'metal vitamin' as even a small amount can change the properties of an alloy. One of the first industrial uses of indium was to coat the bearings of World War II aircrafts. 

In term of production, indium is not mined on its own but as a by-product. Most commonly, it is recovered from the zinc-sulphide ore sphalerite, where it can be found from 1 to 100 ppm (parts per million). Indium production has increased exponentially, increasing past 100 tons per year in the late 80s, to over 650 tons per year by 2012 [19, 20]. China is the main producer, but as an example of the process, let's consider the operation conducted by Canadian company Teck Resources, who runs the Red Dog mine in Alaska as well as a zinc and lead smelting and refining complex in Trail, B.C, where indium is also produced. At the mine, 9800 tons of ores are extracted per day using conventional techniques: drilling, blasting, then grinding the rock to manageable size. Then a floatation process, which involves 200 tons of cyanide per year, is used to separate the lead, then the zinc. The resulting ore concentrates are sent by road to be stockpiled at the port until the short summer shipping season. In 2018, the Red Dog mine produced 1.29 billion pounds of Zinc, and 750 millions pounds of toxins [21, 22]. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the environmental record of the mine depends on who does the assessment and their criteria. The company advertises an environmental policy and was ranked on the Corporate Knights best 50 for the 13th year running in 2019. The award examines a range of environmental and social indicators including a company's carbon, water, waste and energy use, pension fund quality and tax dollar generation [23]. Yet in contrast the Environment Protection Agency named Kotzebue in Alaska the worst industrially polluted town in the US in 2018. The pollution doesn't come from the town itself, but you'll have guessed, from the Red Dog mine, 80 miles away [22]. Some of it is caused by 'fugitive dust', metal-laden dust that is released and wind-blown at the mining site or during transportation. In addition, there have been issues with acids leaks into the water system. Mining brings to the surface potentially toxic ores that were locked away underground: as the sulfide rich rock is exposed to air and water, it weathers to form the highly corrosive sulfuric acid, which is toxic to most living organisms. The acid-formation process is greatly enhanced by the crunching of the rock, which can increase its surface area by a factor of 100 000. The sulfuric acid produced in sulfide mine tailings (the mud-like substance that remains after the minerals of interest have been extracted) makes the surrounding water dangerously more acidic. To prevent this to happen, the tailing are mixed with waste rocks (the part of the rock with no ore, which can also release acid but to a lesser extent) and sequestered under water behind a large dam. The water from the dam is treated before being released into the environment, a system that needs maintaining in perpetuity (yes, it does mean forever) to protect the downstream waters. The mine is expected to produce around 88 million tons of tailings if operations continue as planed through to 2031 [24]. Figure 6 below show the mine's tailing ponds.

Figure 6: The Red Dog mine tailing ponds. Image by Ground Truth Trekking [24]
There is no two way about it: our modern high-tech way of life has a price and despite genuine attempts at best practice, communities and ecosystems are severely impacted. In the case of the Red Dog mine, as in many instances of mines in Indigenous territories, the operation provides much needed revenue, jobs and welfare. Yet local populations shouldn't have to allow the destruction of their ecosystems as the only way to earn a decent living. We all need to find another way of existing on this planet.

Finally, I should mention that recycling Indium remains marginal and is most commonly recovered from ITO scrap in Japan and the Republic of Korea and there could be supply issues within the next couple of decades if demand carries on its upward trend [20].


Lithium’s main current use is in batteries, 56% in 2018 according to USGS data [25] against 20% in 2005 [26]. Demand for batteries has increased significantly in recent years as rechargeable lithium batteries are used extensively in the growing market for portable electronic devices and are increasingly required for electric tools, electric vehicles and grid storage applications.

Once more, the consequences of industrial mining are hardly part of mainstream discussion, be it on electric cars and 'green' energy or electronic devices. The most accessible sources of lithium are brines, saline waters that contain a large amount of dissolves salts. They are formed in place where fresh or salt water has undergone extreme evaporation, such as the salt flats in South America (Chile, Bolivia and Argentine), and in China and Tibet [27]. The purest source of lithium is Chile's Salar de Atacama, whose exploitation produces near to 40% of the world's lithium. The brine is pumped to shallow solar evaporation ponds and treated to finally recover lithium in the form of lithium carbonate. The process consumes 65% of the region's water, which is having a big impact on local farming communities in a dry area already prone to draughts.
"Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells," said Guilermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile in a 2009 interview. "This isn't a green solution - it's not a solution at all." [28, see also 29 for images]

Demand for lithium is expected to growth with the electric car market. As I mentioned when discussing 'green growth', we are experiencing a 'lock-in', which is as much physical as psychological – we are led to believe that we can get the same level of clean energy as we have now with fossil fuel and the same amount of cars or more on the roads. We seem unable to imagine something markedly different, and if someone dares suggest we could live as well with less cars and less energy they are dismissed as wanting to return to the dark ages, as if we'd linearly evolved to a pinnacle of binging on fossil fuels and driving cars.
In a report on global metal availability and industry trends published in 2010, Quel futur pour les métaux? ([26] quoted above), the authors estimate that 4 kg of lithium are necessary to built a battery for an electric vehicle with an average autonomy of 300 km. They write that "the hypothetical use of all the reserves of lithium pure enough to for the requirement of electric batteries for new vehicles could be enough to equip one billion vehicles, that is as many vehicles as there are today," (my translation) and carry on to suggest that the availability of lithium is likely to be a limiting factor in the large-scale development of electric cars. Electric cars merely displace the problem – and by that I am not saying that they have no role to play in reshaping the way we travel, but that their role is likely to be on a much smaller scale than that advertised. One need not forget that lithium has other, perhaps less visible, applications, e.g. from glass and ceramics to various alloys, lubricating grease and pharmaceuticals. Of course, research advances on battery efficiency and on the recycling front, but current recycling rates are low, and there are no known substitutes for what lithium offers.

Tin & Tantalum

Tin is an old hand, for it has been mined since about 2500 BCE. Currently, 36% of the world tin is used in electronics and demand is increasing. Tantalum is also widely used in electronics and is a key constituents of capacitors, 50 to 60% of the world's production is used in ICT. I am including them here because alongside tungsten and gold, they form the 3T&G, the world's recognised conflict minerals: over 50% of the mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo are controlled by armed groups. Tin is refined from an ore called cassiterite and tantalum from an ore called columbite-tantalite, or coltan. Their exploitation fuels armed conflict, environmental damage (deforestation, erosion, pollution, and human rights violation) [2].

A French journalist, Christophe Boltanski, attempted to trace the supply chain of tin, from mines in DRC to smelters in Malaysia, a challenging investigation if any as the number of intermediaries blurs and somewhat conveniently hides the true origin of the minerals. The resulting book Minerais de sang (Blood minerals, my translation), which includes photographs by Patrick Robert, highlights the human drama involved [30]. The journey begins in Bisie, with its kilometres of artisanal tunnels where diggers spend hours stretching into days underground looking for "la matière", the substance, the mineral from which tin is extracted: cassiterite. From Bisie, the ore is first transported 50km on foot to Njingala over a muddy rain forest trail by men bent under the weight of 50kg to 60kg bags. Then it travels on trucks to Kilambo, then by air (no other options) to Goma at the Rwandan border from where it carries on by truck to the export port of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania.

According to a 2014 Unicef report, more than 40 000 children work in the mines south of DRC [as quoted in 31]. I have to pause here, let the figure sink, and ask: is it worth it? Is that a way of growing up and coming to age I would wish for my nephews, my friends' kids, any child? This is not without reminding me of other children, in other mines, uncomfortably closer to home. A recent article in The Conversation makes the comparison between modern child labour and what used to be common place in European coal mines as late as the 19th century [31]. In the coal mines the children would man the fans; close and open fire doors (and remain in the dark in between to save the price of a candle); go where adults were too big to crawl. They would be paid less, yet work similar shifts (up to 14 hours). Child labour was not banned until the mid to late 1800s: in 1854 for under 10s in England; 1813 for underground work for under 10s in France, where nearly 60 years passed before more progress was made. Again, I have to pause and ask the question that has been troubling me for decades: was it worth it? When considering the individual suffering as well as the global scale destruction wrought by our industrial civilisation, in this moment I feel inclined to answer: no. And perhaps this is the lesson – can we do things better? Stop mining or mine differently? With curiosity for the treasures of the Earth rather than to satisfy the ever growing needs of businesses locked in a race for more profits?

Child labour is not the only pervasive issue in the mining area of the DRC. Another is sexual violence, which is used by armed groups to enforce control over their illegal economic activities. In 2018, the MONUSCO (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) documented 1,049 cases of conflict related sexual violence, all bar eight of which were targeting women or girls, mainly as they walked to school or collected firewood and water [32]. These are only the reported cases, which could be a large underestimate due to the stigma attached to this type of violence. Dr Dennis Mukwege, a surgeon who was co-awarded the 2018 Noble Peace Prize for his work helping victims of sexual violence in the DRC, said:
By the time I was sewing up the second generation, I said to myself: 'The answers won't come from the operating theatre.' I absolutely have to tell the world (...), that there is a collective responsibility to act in DRC. We share the same humanity and we cannot continue to allow economic wars to be fought on women's bodies.

His Foundation has now a global reach and I encourage you to check it out [33].

What next?

The examples given above highlight the destruction wrought by the mining industry, yet we seem to want more of it still. Increasing demands for metals means that there is talk of reopening mines. The Mountain Pass mine in the US was reopened after years of inactivity. Guillaume Pitron, author of 'La guerre des métaux rares', supports a renewal of the French mining industry due to the strategic importance of ensuring supplies, and also in order to bring back home the challenge of mining in a way that is environmentally sustainable. In England, I came across a couple of headlines mentioning the possible reopening of a Cornish tin mine, possibly also to search for indium, with operations run by the Canadian company Strongbow Exploration [34, 35]. At the end of my talk in York, a lecturer urged me to mention the risks incurred by marine ecosystems threatened by deep sea mining for there is now talk of finding minerals deep in the ocean greatly endangering poorly understood marine environments in the process [see e.g. 36-38]. There is also talk of mining on the Moon (as mentioned at the currently showing Moon exhibition at the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich). These latter options seem to me unrealistic in view of the energy crisis we are likely to face as we run out of easily accessible, cheap petrol: simply we won't be able to go there [39], but that doesn't mean there isn't still time to destroy more of the planet. I'd rather have less electronics and know the seabeds are safe. Again, we are back to the question: where are the limits?

What we urgently need to realise is that mobile phones and other electronic objects don't just come from fancy, glossy high street shops or via mail delivery from an online catalogue. We are not a post-industrial, digital only society: there is a very physical, tangible basis to the way we live, we are extracting more metals from the Earth than we have ever done before and this is what I want to emphasise here. We have exported the industries to less regardant countries, or to countries given no choice. As I argued, 'green growth' – or business as usual with new 'green and clean' technologies – doesn't do what it says on the tin. It locks us further into dependence on extracting yet more energy, yet more minerals from an already wounded planet, by exhausted populations. Both deserve better; so do we. Yet so far, most of the answers to the rare metals supply problem have been sought following the usual rationale: looking for more deposits; securing trade agreements; financing research and development into recycling techniques or substitutes. However supplies are finite; countries will have a tendency to fend for themselves or in the darkest scenarios use force to secure supplies; recycling requires energy, doesn't match increase in demand nor works at rates close to 100% (in particular due to the increasingly dispersive use of metals); substitutes run the risk of merely displacing the problem. I am not saying these options won't be part of the solution, but to my mind looking at demand rather than supply by reviewing what we consume and why should come first. Saving could be made more rapidly, and that needn't be a hardship. For example, none of our resource and energy consuming military equipment would be necessary if humanity grew up to adulthood and decided cooperation was better than war. It might also be worth asking: do we need wind turbines to power advertising screens? Should we keep buying new smartphones every 6 months? Should we all own a tablet? As the geologist Ugo Bardi wrote in Extracted [27],
When it comes to mineral depletion it is not just a question of asking for how long can we keep plundering the planet, but whether the planet – and its ecosystem – can survive the wounds we are inflicting upon it.

Shouldn't that be a wake up call? Shouldn't that invite a bit of sobriety on our part?


So where is the Wonder in all this? After all, I gave a talk entitled the 'Wonders of Rare Metals' as part of a festival whose theme was 'World of Wonders'. The research I did for this talk led me down a different path and I strongly felt the need to acknowledge the damage caused by mining. Yet the wonder is there, not in the tech wizardry, but in the astronomical and geophysical phenomena that led to the formation of the ores in the first place, some of which are not fully elucidated.

Of the elements considered above, lithium was amongst the first born some of it being formed at the time of the Big Bang, the other were formed in the furnace of dying low-mass stars or during collisions between neutron stars [40]. Our Sun is a second generation star and the solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago from a cloud of dust containing heavier elements. Some elements have also been brought to Earth by meteorites.

As a planet, the Earth is alive with volcanic activity and geophysical mechanisms have enabled the formation of ores, where the elements are sufficiently concentrated for mining to be possible. One mechanism for example is called 'hydrothermal vent formation': the dissolution of heavy elements in supercritical water in subduction zones (where one tectonic plate goes under another as happens on the Pacific side of the Americas). The water is pushed to the surface at volcanoes and hot springs and releases the minerals as it cools. Part of the wonder is the exquisite beauty of those minerals, perhaps, also, they play a role we can hardly guess at.

As Bardi wrote, the ores are 'Gaia's gifts', yet he insists that this is a one time gift. A gift developed using tremendous amounts of energy over geological timescales. When we'll run out, we'll run out, and we'll be left to sift through the waste of our industrial civilisation like so many already do in the places were we export our recycling and e-waste [41].

So here are the questions I would like to leave you with.
Can we not stop the greed and the destruction? Do we even know what role the ores we're breaking play in the balance of the Earth? Have we not yet extracted enough metals out of the ground to cover our needs? When will we have enough? What is it that we really need for a happy, fulfilling life? Isn't that a knowledge we should reclaim for ourselves rather than let for profit corporations tell us that what we desperately need is what they can sell us? All of the elements I looked at above are extensively used in ICT. We are told that digital technologies, the Internet of Things, connected objects, driverless cars are the future. How much more destruction will a large-scale roll out of those technologies require? Is it a price worth paying?
We do have a choice: we can save and heal what is left of our home planet for ourselves, our fellow species and future generations, or we can fall for the short-term promise of a virtual world supposedly better than the one we are destroying. My plea is that at the very least we debate the question and make a conscious choice.

Note: in what I wrote above, I make extensive use of the pronoun 'we', and I have had to clarify what I mean by this. In most instances, I mean mainly Westerners, or more precisely people who have been brought up to believe that progress is linear, that technologies improve life and are the best possible choices; people who live in countries who use a lot of raw materials, most of which they do not extract (or if they do so it tends to be in wilderness areas or on indigenous lands) and export their waste; people who are sold a lot of stuff they do not need. Sometimes though, it means all of us humans, for we all have a role to play in stopping the madness and rescuing the planet. Of course, as a reader, you retain the complete free will to decide whether or not you are included in the 'we'.



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[9] Centre for Alternative Technology. Build a small windturbine short course.
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[11] Elemental Abundances svg file, Wikimedia Commons. Available: [Accessed June 2019]. The image from from a publication by the US geological Survey available at:
[12] The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements, a multimedia project. Moreno/Lyons production LLC 2015. [Online]. Available: [Accessed June 2019].
[13] Moseley's Law. Wikipedia article. [Online]. Available [Accessed June 2019]
[14] M. Maccrackin. "Ytterby Elements: periodic table history", 7th May 2017, Baltic Eye, [Online]. Available: [Accessed June 2019]. The image of gadolinite is attributed to Wikipedia.
[15] Ganguli, R. and Cook D.R., Rare earths: A review of the landscape. MRS Energy & Sustainability: A Review Journal. Vol 5, E9 (2018). doi:10.1557/mre.2018.7. Available: [Accessed 26th September 2019]
[16] Piercy L. Et al., "Pilot-Scale Plant to Extract Rare Earth Elements in Heart of Coal Country", 7th November 2018, University of Kentucky News, University of Kentucky, [Online]. Available: [Accessed June 2019].
[17] Hongqiao Liu et al., "Rare Earths: shades of grey. Can China Continue to Fuel Our Global Clean & Smart Future?" China Water Risk, June 2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 26th September 2019].
[18] T. Maughan, “The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust”, BBC Future, 2nd April 2015. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 25th February 2019]
[19] Mineral commodity summaries 2019: U.S. Geological Survey, Available: [Accessed 27th September 2019]
[20] Indium Statistics and information, National Minerals Information Centre, U.S. Geological survey, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 27th September 2019]
[21] S. Lasley, "Red Dog churns out 1.3B lb zinc in 2018", 22nd February 2019, North of 60 Mining News, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 27th September 2019].
[22] A. Wernick, "The most toxic town in America", 9th June 2018, Public Radio International, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 27th September 2019]
[23] Teck News releases, "Teck Named to 2019 Best 50 Corporate Citizens in Canada", 4th June 2019, Teck Resources, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 27th September 2019]
[24] D. Coil, E. McKittrick, B. Higman, "Red Dog Mine", November 2014, Ground Truth Trekking, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 27th September 2019]. Image (c) Ground Truth Trekking. Available:
[25] P. Bihouix and B. de Guillebon, Quel futur pour les métaux? La raréfaction des métaux: un nouveau défi pour la société, EDP Science, 2010.
[26] Lithium Statistics and information, National Minerals Information Centre, U.S. Geological survey, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 27th September 2019].
[27] Ugo Bardi, Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet, A report to the Club of Rome. 2014, Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont, USA. The excerpt on lithium is written by E. Suomalainen (p.129).
[28] Amit Katwala. “The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction”, Wired, 5th August 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 25 February 2019]
[29] M. Krivic and B. Videmsek, Lithium, The Story Institute, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 25 September 2019]
[30] Christophe Boltanski, Minerais de sang, les esclaves du monde moderne, Grasset, Paris, 2012.
[31] D. Cooper-Richet, "Du XIXᵉ siècle à aujourd’hui, des enfants dans l’enfer de la mine", 27th February 2019, The Conversation, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 27th September 2019]
[32] Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on sexual conflict and violence, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2019, United Nations, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 27th September 2019]
[33] The Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation,
[34] H. Wallop, "The i-pad app dug out of a Cornish tin mine" , 10th February 2011, The Telegraph, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 30th September 2019; note that this article is already 8 years old. I reference it as it raise my interest by mentioning indium. I couldn't find more recent references to that metal].
[35] D. Barnett, "What happens when tin mines get canned? Cornwall’s ancient mines are back with a bang", 6th March 2018, The Independent, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 30th September 2019]
[36] D. Shukman, "Renewables' deep-sea mining conundrum", 12th April 2017, BBC News Science & Environment, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 30th September 2019].
[37] C.L. Van Dover, "Scientific rational and international obligations for protection of active hydrothermal vent ecosystems from deep sea mining", Marine Policy, 90 (2018), p.20-28. Available: [Accessed 30th September 2019].
[38] J. Gabbatiss, "'Semi-infinite' trove of rare-earth metals found in Japanese waters", 12th April 2018, The Independent, www, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 30th September 2019].
[39] P.Bihouix, L'âge des low-techs: vers une civilisation techniquement soutenable, editions du seuil, Paris, 2014.
[40] J. Johnson, "Origins of the elements in the Universe", 9th January 2017, Science blog from the Sloan Digital Sky Surveys, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 30th September 2019]
[41] BBC News, "Computer recycling West Africa style", 20th February 2014, BBC News video [Online]. Available: [Accessed 30th September 2019]

Monday, 11 March 2019

Techs for the future I: the false promises of “green growth”

Climate change and the promise of “green growth”

It is no news that anthropogenic climate change is happening. The latest IPCC report gives us 12 years to change course in order to avoid the most dramatic consequences [see e.g. 1] - and that estimate is likely to be far too conservative [see e.g. 2-4].

We need, urgently, to reduce our greenhouse gases emissions. The popular option on how to achieve this involves the concept of “green growth”, which according to the OECD means
fostering economic growth and development, while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies. To do this, it must catalyse investment and innovation which will underpin sustained growth and give rise to new economic opportunities. [5]
Following the same lines, the UK Government published its Green Growth Strategy in October 2017 [6]. The document states that
Clean growth means growing our national income while cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Achieving clean growth, while ensuring an affordable energy supply for businesses and consumers, is at the heart of the UK’s Industrial Strategy. It will increase our productivity, create good jobs, boost earning power for people right across the country, and help protect the climate and environment upon which we and future generations depend.
In her foreword to the related Industrial Strategy published in September 2017 [7], the Prime Minister outlines three of the four areas it focuses on, writing that the Strategy will “help propel Britain to a global leadership of the industries of the future - from artificial intelligence and big data to clean energy and self-driving vehicles”. 

There is no talk of the climate crisis, of the humility and sobriety needed to tackle it, of what the promoted technologies require in terms of energy and raw materialsThe promise is that clean energy combined with AI and smart technologies will make everything better as we seamlessly transition to a low-carbon, business-as-usual economy. The promise is we can keep consuming because soon, everything will be clean, green and smart: the energy, the materials, the cities, the cars, the growth. Here again are signs of the die hard myth that yet more advanced, complex technologies will solve our current problems without us having to make major adjustments nor question the way we live. 

Switching to large-scale renewable energy production while ensuring continuity of supply at the current consumption levels would involve a dramatic increase in energy production from renewable sources; the development of ‘smart-grids’ to optimise energy distribution across the networks and manage the intermittency of production and variability of demand; and improved energy storage capacities. Unfortunately, the feasibility of this scenario is fast hitting physical barriers. A more sober look at the facts yields a completely different picture. 

Energy and metals, pressures on both counts

In terms of energy, we are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. The renewable energy sector is growing, but so far the energy it produces has been in addition to, rather than instead of fuel-based energy sources (fossil fuels, nuclear, bio-fuels) for the world keeps consuming more. In 2017, the growth of global primary energy consumption reached 2.2%, the fastest since 2013 [8]. In addition, we are still burning fossil fuel at increasing rates: the 2017 figures give an increase of 1.8% in global oil consumption, 1% in coal consumption (the first growth since 2013), 3% in natural gas (the fastest since 2010). Figure 1 shows the growth of global energy consumption of the last 25 years.

Figure 1: World consumption of primary energy
(BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 [8])

There are still a lot of untapped fossil fuel reserves that we seem still keen to access (e.g. tar sands in Canada, fracking in the UK) but these are harder to reach, as measured for example using the EROI, the Energy Returned On Energy Invested, which is the ratio of energy produced to energy invested. The EROI can vary significantly: for example, if investing 1 baril of petrol produces an estimated average of 40 barils in the onshore fields of Saudi Arabia, it only produces 10-15 barils offshore, 5 barils via fracking, and 3 via tar sands exploitation. So as the accessible reserves diminish, we need to invest more and more energy to get less in return. [9 p.63, 10]. 

At this stage, another, non-renewable, resource needs bringing into the equation: metals. In order to extract energy from less accessible sources, more metals are needed - in the case of petrol, compare a gushing Texan well with an offshore platform and its surrounding crowd of ships and helicopters. Here is the conundrum highlighted by engineer Philippe Bihouix in his book L'âge des low-techs [9]: we need more energy to produce more metals, whilst at the same time, we need more metals to reach less accessible energy. We are fast approaching a very physical limit.

So far, I have mainly commented on petrol as an energy source (which most means of transportation rely on), and we obviously need to “keep it in the ground” as many (myself included) argue - so what about renewable energies? 

The first thing to note is they depend heavily on fossil fuels for their production, installation, maintenance and raw materials (extraction, refining, transportation), so we can't do without petrol just yet - even if we agree to drastically reduce consumption.

Second, the green and digital technologies used for renewable energy supplies rely on increasingly complex electronics, which depends on access to rare metals [11]. These elements are present in the Earth’s crust in association to more abundant metals like iron, aluminium, copper, or zinc but in very weak concentrations. For example, 50 000 kg of rocks need purifying to access 1 kg of gallium (Ga), a metal with applications in the electronics industry [12 p.16]. Rare metals, and in particular those called rare earths, have very interesting physical properties that make them prime candidates for use in modern technologies: semi-conducting properties, so they are highly prized for smart or digital application; strong magnetic properties, which enable the manufacture of light yet powerful magnets for use in motors, e.g. in electric cars or wind turbines. In his book La guerre des métaux rares, journalist Guillaume Pitron warns
Our quest for a greener growth model has rather led to intensified exploitation of the earth’s crust to extract its active principle: rare metals, with environmental impacts even greater than those caused by the extraction of petrol. To change our energy model requires doubling the production of rare metals every 15 years, and will require extracting over the next 30 years more minerals than humanity has extracted over the last 70000 years. [translated from 12 p.24]
Indeed, supply issues are predicted to affect some elements within the next decades as illustrated in Figure 2. For example, indium (In), which is used in the transparent indium tin oxide (ITO) conducting film of touch screens as well as in blue LEDs, is at risk to be used up within 50 years if current consumption trends carry on [13].

Figure 2: Element Scarcity EuChemS Periodic Table [13]
Unsurprisingly, the quest for these precious resources is already generating geopolitical tensions - not only are those elements essential to “green” and digital technologies, they are also key to the latest military technologies. At the moment, China controls over 90% of the production of rare earths and has the power to largely influence the market as well as to force technological transfers to its shore [12].

There is of course the question of recycling. Could we not recycle old electronics to mine for those minerals? This is the line that Japan is taking to regain some independence of supplies but progress is slow [12 pp.70], even if the country is on target to produce most if not all of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics medals out of recycled metals from old electronics [14]. The main obstacle to recycling is that hi-tech objects (and bear in mind nowadays that could be a kettle, or a pair of socks) contain increasingly mixed materials and complex alloys that can no longer be separated efficiently. Methods are difficult to find, often involve polluting processes, and the costs remain prohibitive. Printed circuit boards with ever smaller components are a a prime example; worse is the dispersive use of metals as pigments or additives, and in nanotechnologies [9 p.68]. “Circular economy” will never be achieved and even if we can do better, we are still very far from the mark as shown by the recycling rates in Figure 3. It is also worth noting that since the demand for these rare metals is growing, talking of circular economy doesn’t make much sense for the additional resources required to feed the growth still have to come from somewhere: “circular economy” and “ green growth” are not compatible.

Figure 3: The periodic table of global average post-consumer functional recycling - i.e. in which the physical and chemical properties that made the material desirable in the first place are retained for subsequent use [15].

In addition, our current manufacturing capabilities are such that switch to renewable energy supplies while keeping the current western levels of binge consumption is a physical impossibility [see e.g. 9 p.75]. The delays in which we are required to act are so short that we cannot rely on new energy technologies to be deployed in time to help with climate change [16].

Finally, it is also worth pointing out that the majority of renewable energy sources have an EROI on average no higher than 12:1. Estimates show that the minimum EROI necessary to offer the level of services expected in modern societies: a satisfaction of essential needs in terms of food, shelter, and sanitation; state provisions such as justice, defense, health, education; and entertainment has been estimated to lie between 12:1 and 13:1. With declining fossil fuel EROIs and renewables managing just that, we’re fast approaching a threshold when difficult choices will need to be made [see 17 p.54]. Even if there are dissensions on the meaning and use of those estimates [18], it should be clear that any energetic transition to a low-carbon economy will require large-scale compromise.

Green technologies aren't green; digital technologies aren't dematerialised

In addition to supply issues is a much darker aspect I have only hinted at up to now: pollution. Technologies branded as “green” are a far cry from being either “green” or “clean” (though they could be made “greener” and “cleaner”). However in Europe in particular, we no longer see a pollution that has been exported due to increasing concerns for our own environment. G. Pitron describes how stricter, yet highly justified environmental rules caused US company Molycorp to abandon its mining activities at Mountain Pass in California in 2002 or forced French chemical giant Rhône-Poulenc (now part of Solvay) to stop its rare earths refining activities at its La Rochelle factory in the mid-90s [12, ch.3]. Both firms ended up buying their rare metals from China, who was able to offer a cheaper supply than its competitors thanks to few environmental restrictions and cheap labour costs.
Europe and the US knew the real cost of extracting rare earths in a cleaner way that would not endanger future generations. However we chose to close our eyes to what was going on in China, says a French expert. [translated from 12 p.92]
Extracting rate metals involves breaking huge quantities of rocks, which then go through complex processes involving toxic chemical reactants such as sulfuric or nitric acid. The procedure uses up a lot of water; tailing ponds filled with toxic material leak; waste waters are released into the environment charged with acids, heavy metal and radioactive elements such as thorium (Th) with limited treatment. The region of Baotou in Inner Mongolia, now known as “the rare earth capital of the world” has greatly suffered and more than one visiting western journalist describes it as “hell” [12 chapter 2, 19, 20]. The image below shows “Baotou's toxic lake”, what used to be farmlands.

In Baotou, Inner Mongolia, the worlds largest rare earth mineral refinery pumps toxic and radioactive tailings into an adjacent artifical lake. © Liam Young/Unknown Fields [21]
Tim Maughan writes 
We reached the shore, and looked across the lake. I’d seen some photos before I left for Inner Mongolia, but nothing prepared me for the sight. It’s a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying. The thought that it is man-made depressed and terrified me, as did the realisation that this was the byproduct not just of the consumer electronics in my pocket, but also green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars that we get so smugly excited about in the West. [20]
China’s is not the only environment (soil, water, plants, animals, people) suffering from high-tech’s reliance on rare metals, as headlines regularly remind us. Congo in particular is suffering from the unregulated artisanal mining of cobalt (Co), tungsten (W) and tantalum (Ta), which often fuels armed conflict and child labour as well as causes environmental damage [see e.g. 12 ch. 2; 22-24]. Furthermore, rare metals are not the only raw material required for “green techs”. Lithium (Li) is another element for which demand is increasing exponentially with the growth of the electric car market and whose sourcing creates huge environmental problems, e.g. toxic leaks in Tibet, water shortages in South America and more [23].

Now if we focus on digital technologies, it is crucial to realise that they are a far cry from being dematerialised, in a cloud somewhere. All the environmental impacts from sourcing raw materials detailed above apply to the hardware (e.g. see Figure 2 for a list of elements included in smartphones, including which are labelled as conflict minerals). In addition there is the increasing amount of energy required to store data; to transport the increasing volume of information we send daily through the network; to perform calculations, in particular those required for cryptocurrencies [see e.g. 25 - 28]. 

The Guardian’s Climate Home News writes that
The communications industry could use 20% of all the world’s electricity by 2025, hampering attempts to meet climate change targets and straining grids as demand by power-hungry server farms storing digital data from billions of smartphones, tablets and inter-connected devices grows exponentially. [25]
Indeed, Figure 4 gives recent predictions from carbon transition think tank The Shift Network. Their model implies that the energy consumption from communications technology increases annually by 8.5% [29].

Figure 4: Percentage of the world's electricity used by communication technologies. 
The 'Best Case', 'Expected' and 'Worse Case' are scenarios from Andrae & Edler (2015) [30] and correspond to increase in electricity efficiency and decrease in data traffic; efficiency and traffic data similar to the period 2010-2013; decrease in electricity efficiency and increase in data traffic, respectively. The 'Expected revised' and 'Revised higher growth and Energy Efficiency' are revised calculations by the Shift Network corresponding to the 'Expected' case with updated traffic data; and with increasing traffic data (at an updated rate) as well as increase in electricity efficiency from 2015.
The Shift Network identify four main sources of increase in energy consumption: the smartphone phenomenon (split between 90% at the production phase, and 10% from usage - end-of-life processing is not taken into account as it remains marginal and there is no data); the increase in “connected objects”; the development of the “IIoT”, Industrial Internet of Things; and the explosion of data traffic in particular due to videos [29 p.14]. Needless to say, they argue for sobriety if we are to meet any carbon targets.

Conclusions and further remarks

The arguments and figures above support the viewpoint that hi-techs and “green growth” are not a miracle answer to the challenge posed by anthropogenic climate change. At some point, we need to understand that exponential growth of material consumption and energy use on a planet with finite resources is simply not an option, and as the global warming clock ticks, not even in the short term. So we must ask ourselves, now: how much energy to we really need? What kind of transportation do we want for the future? How much data and videos do we genuinely need access to? How do we want to communicate so that it doesn't cost the Earth? This is not for experts to decide; these are be topics for urgent citizen debate.

Now let’s assume for a moment that climate change isn’t happening and that resources are infinite. Is business as usual OK? I would still argue that the same questions need to be asked and dramatic changes made, for the following reasons. In order to evaluate the environmental impact of a technology and its ethical status, its full life-cycle must be considered. It is clear to me that the large-scale pollution, environmental destruction, and global injustice wrought by the manufacture (and disposal) of modern “green” and digital technologies is enough to warrant a genuine debate on where our society wants to go with them. In addition, relying on increasingly complex networks and large-scale “green” energy production plants will ensure that energy supplies remain controlled by corporations and states, thus negating the opportunity for relocalisation of the energy supply and increased democracy (see this previous post and reference to Langdon Winner’s work). Finally, increased network complexity will increase vulnerability to systemic failures, when small perturbations can have dramatic consequences. An example is the huge blackout caused by a solar storm, which left the entire province of Quebec without electricity for 12 hours in March 1989 [31]. The systemic aspects requires much deeper investigation beyond our scope here.

It all sounds doom and gloom, but that is certainly not the aim of this blog. The message is that unless we look at reality as it is, rather than at a more convenient, virtual, smoothed out version of it; unless we realise that the world is as it is because of human choices and that we can make the choice to change everything, then we will not be able to work towards a better future. At the moment, we are still rushing ahead, researchers coerced to follow the funding lines, the public being told that high-techs, AIs and driverless electric cars are the future. We’re driving the innovation car at increasing speed, except that at then end of the road, there’s a cliff, and technological wings won’t be ready in time. 

It is time to wake up, pause and think more deeply than the surface. What kind of world to we want to build? What technologies are required for this? I do not have answers to those questions, which require addressing in a genuinely democratic debate. I can only offer suggestions of what I think is worth investigating further and one interesting option is to follow Philippe Bihouix's idea to go ‘low-tech’ [9]. This will be explored in the next post.


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[11] Various sources have various definitions for ‘rare metals’. I found the following website helpful: [Accessed 4th March 2019]. What I include when talking about ‘rare metals’ are what they call: RREs (rare earth elements), PGEs (platinum group elements), and RMs (rare metal elements).
[12] Guillaume Pitron, La guerre des métaux rares: la face cachée de la transition énergétique et numérique, Les Liens qui Liberent, Paris, 2018.
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