We can also confirm that demand for all major metals, except lead, is expected to increase continuously by the end of this century, with the highest growth rate for aluminum (470%), followed by copper (330%), zinc (130%) and iron (100%). Palladium is the most expensive of the four major precious metals: gold, silver and platinum are the others. It is rarer than platinum and is used in large quantities for catalytic converters. In the short term, demand for metals used in catalytic converters is expected to remain stable, driven by rising car sales in Asia.
However, the increase in the adoption of battery-powered electric vehicles — which do not use catalytic converters — could affect demand for palladium. In fact, plans are emerging to track “ethical” cobalt, while the Financial Times has reported that some buyers are paying higher prices for sustainable and traceable metal supplies. Although it is also a catalytic metal, due to its high melting point and resistance to corrosion, iridium is the preferred material for crucibles. Low-carbon technologies are unlikely to be the only pressure on copper, although electric vehicles and wind energy use large amounts of metal compared to smartphones.
In fact, all publications that examine the implications of materials and metals for the supply of clean technologies are in full agreement that the creation of these technologies will generate significantly greater demand for materials than traditional fossil fuel mechanisms. Two metals in particular, lithium and cobalt, have raised fears in the supply chain in recent years, although many other metals are used. Iridium is almost as dense as the densest metallic osmium and is the metal element most resistant to corrosion, resistant to air, water, salts and acids. A World Bank report released last year counted dozens of metals that could boost a growing market with the increasing use of wind, solar and batteries.
The spread of these so-called “strategic metals”, often in places other than those where fossil fuels are found, raises interesting questions about how geopolitics will affect the rapid rise of clean technologies. This low-carbon future would entail strong demand for a wide range of base and precious metals, according to the World Bank report. Extraction, which requires separating several different metals from a single tank, is difficult and costly. Iridium is one of the rarest metals in the Earth's crust, with an annual production of just three tons.
To assess the possibility of a shortage, it is useful to analyze the availability estimates provided by the United States Geological Society (USGS) for more than 100 minerals and metals, including many of the key metals for low-carbon technologies. Rare earth metals, also known as rare earth elements (REE), are a group of 17 chemically similar elements. It is impossible to pinpoint the balance of technologies — and, therefore, of metals — that will be used over the next 30 years. The high seas are also believed to be rich in other essential metals used in electronics, such as manganese and gold.
Even if a metal's current reserves and resources are sufficient for the foreseeable future, scarcity could still be possible.