NERC invests £8m in research into elements crucial for developing low-carbon technologies

Posted by ap507 at Nov 10, 2015 01:40 PM |
University of Leicester team to lead research into vital raw materials for solar panels

NERC is investing just over £8m in research – including £2.4 million to the University of  Leicester - 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 of the University of Leicester, 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.

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 at the University of Leicester.  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 team includes researchers from Aberdeen, Cardiff, Dundee, Durham, Cambridge, Edinburgh, the Open University, Iowa State University, Monash (Australia)  Alaska Fairbanks, the Natural History Museum and the James Hutton Institute. The researchers will work with over twenty five industrial partners from around the world, involved in government, international development, mining, mineral exploration, metal refining and end-use of Te and Se, particularly in photovoltaic panels.

Dan Smith, from the Department of Geology, said: “I’m really excited to be starting this project. We’re going from fundamental geology and mineralogy to providing raw materials for hi-tech companies. We get to work on ore deposits around the world, with some of the world’s leading companies, figuring out how some exotic rocks formed, and how to recover essential elements from them.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for the team here in the Geology Department at Leicester to build on the work we’ve started with Andy Abbott in Chemistry, in developing environmentally-friendly ore processing methods. Together with our industrial partners, we’re working to provide the raw materials we all need for a more sustainable future.”

Right now, these elements are just by-products of extracting more common minerals, and haven’t been widely mined on a commercial scale before. Now, two global pressures on the use of mineral resources are putting environmental issues into the spotlight.

Firstly, population growth and greater consumption of natural resources are pushing the demand for these minerals to new levels. Secondly, global efforts to protect the environment and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are increasing demand for metals that support low carbon technologies.

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

NERC’s Security of Supply of Minerals programme will enhance global security of supply of these e-tech elements in two ways: through improved understanding of how they move through natural systems, and by using this information to develop better ways of recovering them to reduce the environmental damage this currently causes.


  • This announcement coincides with a Security of Supply of Minerals programme launch event at the Natural History Museum on 10 November 2015
  • The security of supply of minerals resources programme centres on four competitively-won projects that directly involve over 50 industrial partners and some 20 plus universities and research organisations. It directly funds 24 postdoctoral research associates and 17 PhD researchers, and seeks to deliver world-leading research and world-leading scientists in this emerging area.
  • The £13.5m research programme includes £8.2m funding from NERC, £2m from NERC through the Newton Fund, £2m from FAPESP and £1.4m from EPSRC.

NERC’s security of supply of minerals resources programme webpage –

BGS’s Security of Supply of Minerals programme webpage –





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