Can Energy Ever be Truly Green?

British researchers recently discovered that Tropic Seamount, an extinct seafloor volcano near the Canary Islands, contains massive concentrations of tellurium, an extremely scarce element which is a key component of high efficiency solar panels. Georgia Tech Assistant Professor Jennifer Glass, an expert on biogeochemistry, explains the significance of this discovery and why no energy is truly green. 

The researchers estimated that the Tropic Seamount contains one-twelfth of the world's tellurium supply. This inevitably raises the question of whether mining companies should extract metals from the deep sea to meet the growing demand for tellurium for the “green” energy economy.

There has been no commercial deep-sea mining yet, but the future trade-off is looming. A likely method for seabed mining would be a self-propelled vehicle carrying a rock collector that would slide along the seafloor, possibly on tank-like tracks, "lawn-mowing" the ocean sediment. This method could smother and trample seabed communities.  

Is it wise to increase our solar capacity by destroying one-of-a-kind marine animal species? Obviously not. Yet all of us are complicit in our society's reliance on precious metals mined from somewhere.   

No energy economy is truly green. All will use raw materials and generate waste. The question is how we switch from a carbon-fueled energy economy, with the inevitable byproduct of carbon-based greenhouse gas emissions, to a green economy, while minimizing the negative environmental repercussions to land- or marine-habitats hosting those essential resources. 

Maybe there is another option. Consider the long-term citizen science project led by Professor Harry Gray of Caltech called the "Solar Army", in search of the "holy grail" solar fuel. This mystery catalyst would be composed of a blend of common, cheap metals without the need for ultra-rare elements like tellurium. What is the catalyst of the future? By answering that question, engineers and scientists can -- literally! -- save the world.

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  • Tropic Seamount: The mountain stands about 3,000m tall

  • Dr. Jennifer Glass