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Antonio Valero and Alicia Valero (2019)

Thermodynamic Rarity and Recyclability of Raw Materials in the Energy Transition: The Need for an In-Spiral Economy

Entropy, 21:873.

This paper presents a thermodynamic vision of the depletion of mineral resources. It demonstrates how raw materials can be better assessed using exergy, based on thermodynamic rarity, which considers scarcity in the crust and energy requirements for extracting and refining minerals. An exergy analysis of the energy transition reveals that, to approach a decarbonized economy by 2050, mineral exergy must be greater than that of fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and even all renewables. This is because clean technologies require huge amounts of many different raw materials. The rapid exhaustion of mines necessitates an increase in recycling and reuse, that is, a “circular economy”. As seen in the automobile industry, society is far removed from closing even the first cycle, and absolute circularity does not exist. The Second Law dictates that, in each cycle, some quantity and quality of materials is unavoidably lost (there are no circles, but spirals). For a rigorous recyclability analysis, we elaborate the exergy indicators to be used in the assessment of the true circularity of recycling processes. We aim to strive toward an advanced economy focused on separating techniques and promoting circularity audits, an economy that inspires new solutions: an in-spiral economy.

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