The transition to Net Zero will require substantial quantities of critical materials in order to build and maintain new technologies, from renewable generation to batteries for electric vehicles. Materials such as lithium will be required in much larger quantities than before, while novel materials may need to be developed to replace expensive or scarce conventional materials.

This Briefing Paper considers the current availability and development of materials for the energy sector, investigating both current availability and forecasted production of several critical materials and looking at the state of development of novel materials in the energy sector.

Four materials considered critical to new energy technologies and the low-carbon transition were investigated for availability based on known reserves and projected future demand: lithium, cobalt, tellurium and copper. These materials were selected to illustrate the key themes that relate to concerns over the demand and supply of those metals and other materials that will be required for the transition to a global low-carbon energy system.

Key findings

The report finds that while lithium, cobalt, tellurium and copper are available in significant quantities, difficulties in accessing, processing or recycling them could result in a failure to roll out clean energy technologies fast enough to meet emissions targets. Demand for these elements, used in everything from electric cars to solar panels, is growing rapidly as global efforts to decarbonise accelerate, but the report highlights potential supply chain difficulties and challenges relating to the geographical concentration of materials.

The problem is compounded by the very long lead times typically required to develop new extraction and production projects and, given the global nature of the materials industry, policy measures to influence production are limited.

The report, calls for reforms of planning regulations and new financial incentives to ensure that extraction and production projects keep pace with demand and highlights the need to bolster the search for novel materials that can replace or complement traditional materials.

It recommends the establishment of a dedicated UK resource for materials testing, including degradation testing, benchmarking and certification, as well as greater access to venture capital, testbeds and demonstration platforms.

The report also calls for speculative research to be funded with fewer concerns about immediate results and highlights the need for a greater focus on research continuity and the training of future researchers.

Materials for Energy, published by Energy Futures Lab and UKERC, can be downloaded here.