NERC invests 8m into lowcarbon technology research

NERC is investing just over £8m in research to ensure we have access to elements needed to develop a variety of low-carbon technologies.

These elements, known as e-tech elements, are used in lithium car batteries, solar panels and wind turbines and include cobalt, tellurium, selenium, neodymium, indium, gallium and heavy rare earth elements. Thin, cheap solar panels need tellurium, which makes up a scant 0.0000001 percent of the Earth’s crust, making it three times rarer than gold.

The Tellurium and Selenium Cycling and Supply (TeASe) project, led by Dr Daniel Smith from the Department of Geology, aims to identify and quantify the key processes and conditions that control how selenium and tellurium cycle through the earth’s crust, and how they become concentrated in certain places.

Professor Andrew Abbott
Professor Andrew Abbott from the Department of Chemistry
Dr Smith is working with Dr Gawen Jenkin and Dr Dave Holwell from the Department of Geology and Professor Andrew Abbott from Department of Chemistry.  Together, they will lead a multinational research team to study vital raw materials for solar panels.

The team has received £2.4 million in funds from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) under the Security of Supply of Minerals programme, with over half a million additional funds coming from participating research institutes and industrial partners.

Solar power is one of the world’s fastest growing sources of renewable energy, but the tellurium and selenium used in some of the most efficient photovoltaic panels  are rare in the Earth’s crust, and difficult to recover from mining operations. The TeaSe project will provide a step-change improvement in our understanding of how those elements move through the Earth’s crust, and are ultimately concentrated into ore deposits. We are developing new, environmentally benign methods – including ionic liquid techniques at Leicester – to recover the elements during ore processing to ensure future supply.  

The new research aims to find out more about how the elements behave within the Earth and the environmental implications of mining them.