Readers discuss energy strategies and the rarity of rare earth metals, and call for survey volunteers

Battery strategy

Anthony King described the uncertain future for gigafactory manufacture of lithium-ion batteries in the UK. Over 45 years ago, the first multi-centre, two-nation EU research programme was dedicated to developing new materials for advanced batteries. I ensured that John Goodenough’s Nobel-winning discovery of layered oxide cathodes within this programme was patented worldwide.

For very valid reasons at that time, the emphasis was on developing all-solid-state lithium cells with polymer electrolyte; still the ideal. There was, and still is, an excellent diversity of relevant expertise across UK universities. But there was never a strategy broader than that which we researchers ourselves developed. When Sony revealed the lithium-ion battery some years later there was no effective means to develop a serious UK manufacturing base. I believe that many millions of pounds flowed in from the patent but there seems to have been no effective route to develop a successful UK lithium battery industry.

So what now? Should the focus be on subsidising copycat gigafactories to attract or retain electric vehicle manufacturing in the UK? Increasing vehicle sizes and numbers in recent years have created unhealthy, anti-social environments in towns and cities that electric vehicles, with tyre wear a major issue, will do little to improve. Progressive urban administrations seek a more sustainable, more equitable and healthier future where cars no longer dominate. There are many stationary applications for batteries that might use sodium-ion technology with more environmentally sustainable materials requirements than lithium-ion. If there is to be a strategy for batteries, perhaps develop first a vision for transport and energy storage in a low-carbon, life-affirming economy. Then pursue the battery requirements that follow.

Bruce Tofield FRSC
London, UK

Thorium power

The primary reaction to the threat of climate change has resulted in an almost universal global governmental reaction: eliminate CO2-producing processes by all possible means. Net zero (the complete negation of greenhouse gases produced by human activity) is set for 2050. The cost: the Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated a UK cost of £1.4 trillion, the UN (globally) $123 trillion (£99 trillion). Both sums represent economic catastrophe; but hundreds of billions of pounds have already been squandered. None were necessary.

All government net zero strategies are fixated on eliminating CO2 by a mix of technologies. A more rational objective is to pursue a lowest cost technology that co-incidentally eliminates CO2 emissions. This nuanced change of emphasis results in an uncomplicated easy-to-cost single-conclusion strategy, meeting all possible challenges.

Hydropower has long been the lowest cost electricity producer but is topographically limited. Nuclear then remains the only proven large scale continuous non-CO2 alternative – but that fails on cost, safety, cooling water demand and the formidable resistance of well-funded environmental groups.

There is a replacement: substituting uranium by thorium. It not only eliminates the risk of cataclysmic accident but also fulfils all future electricity demand at a similar cost to hydropower. A fully costed alternative strategy reached the UK’s Secreatary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in April 2022 – who refused to assess the proposal for viability, despite its tabulation of construction costs of CO2-free technologies showing all nuclear options costing significantly less than the Hornsea 1 turbine farm (£10 billion), falling to £1.57 billion (thorium estimate).

Calder Hall was the world’s first full-scale nuclear power station in 1954. It was designed, built and operated from a standing start within eight years by 20,000 newly trained staff at a time when the UK was effectively bankrupt. The UK is now the world’s fifth largest economy, hosts four top-10 universities, has the second highest number of Nobel laureates and the City is rated the world’s best financial and professional services centre. Why does the government lack the confidence to emulate past success? By using the latest methodologies of AI, machine learning, electronics and robot-driven automation, every part of the engineering sector will be invigorated, thereby creating new export opportunities of vast proportions.

Ken Jones
Via email

Not so rare

I have just read the article about designing rare earth free magnet materials. The US researchers designed a cobalt iron boron magnet material by machine learning. The work was interesting in its own right. The material could presumably be used as a substitute for neodymium iron boron magnet materials. However it is probably worth pointing out that neodymium is actually more abundant than cobalt in the Earth’s crust and while many European countries don’t have indigenous supplies of neodymium they don’t have indigenous supplies of cobalt either.

The problem with neodymium and other rare earth metals is not that they are rare but that they are very abundant relative to the demand, which has allowed a small number of producers, mostly in China, to corner the market. This would not be possible for a metal like copper that is in much greater demand. There are numerous unmined rare earth deposits round the world which could be exploited if the political will to support the operations existed. 

AN Mather CChem MRSC 
Leicestershire, UK 

Volunteers for professional qualification research

I’m 75, previously a research chemist who trained part time in industry via an apprenticeship to GRSC and MRSC followed by a part-time MPhil by research. I’m now into my third year part time of a six-year part-time PhD program at university on my own, self-funded history project looking at comparing degree professional qualifications versus academic degree qualifications during the post war 1945–1990 period. I would be interested in anybody willing to participate in a questionnaire, all information being in strict confidence and data anonymised according to research ethics.

Robert Slinn CChem MRSC

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