We don’t have an energy problem. Raw materials are our problem.

Michiel Haas – the Netherlands 

The author is one of the initiators of The Elephants project; this initiative aims to renovate the Adyar Estate.

In this essay Michiel shows us that there is more than enough energy on our planet Earth. The sun provides us with 10,000 times more energy than is consumed yearly, worldwide. The challenge is to convert this sun energy into electricity and to discover other ways to harness sun power. To convert this power we need lots of different devises such as PV-cells, wind mills, and others. For these devises, we need raw materials, and there we get into trouble. Currently we don’t have enough of some kinds minerals to build enough devices to convert sun power into electricity. 

This issue brings us to another problem: scarcity of the raw materials that we need for the building industry. With the increasing world population, the need for houses, schools, offices and other buildings will also increase and with that the need for raw materials. In the article, some solutions for the raw material scarcity are offered. 

The construction industry uses an enormous amount of fossil fuels and raw materials; approximately 36% of all energy and 50% of all raw materials used worldwide are related to the construction industry [1]. A comparable figure applies to the Netherlands, although the construction industry constitutes only approximately 10% of the Dutch gross national product. When, in 1989, the construction industry became a target of environmental policy, following the publication of the Nation Environmental Policy Plan Plus, with the Sustainable Building Appendix, Dutch environmental policy consisted of three focal points: integrated chain management, energy extensification and quality development.


In recent years, most attention was rightfully devoted to the energy saving element. When assessing a complete building life cycle, the environmental impact related to energy consumption is by far the largest proportion of the entire environmental impact. It becomes apparent from the hundreds of GreenCalc calculations by the NIBE [2] that about 80% of the entire environmental impact a building will have during its life cycle is energy-related, while approx. 20% is material-related. So, it is only appropriate that the focus is on energy saving.

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The three graphs above show that the energy component (red colour) of a building has the largest environmental impact. However, when the building is more energy efficient or even energy neutral, then the material component (green colour) will have the largest environmental impact comparatively. The top left graph corresponds to an Environmental Index Building of 200 (regarded as sustainable procurement), the top right graph to an Environmental Index Building of 500 and below is an Environmental Index Building of 1.000. The latter one is an energy neutral building; therefore, it has no environmental impact regarding energy. Here, material will have the largest environment impact. (Source: NIBE).


 The sun provides us with lots of energy. In fact, the sun gives 10,000 times more energy every year than we use worldwide. We wouldn’t need fossil fuels and nuclear energy if we could directly use all the energy the sun provides us. But, there we find the problem: we need to convert the sun power into electricity. For this conversion we need materials, lots of materials.

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The sun provides us with 10.000 times more energy as we yearly use worldwide

By now we have started constructing buildings that are energy efficient, energy neutral or even energyproducing. The level of energy that these buildings generate at least equals the energy consumption of the building's users, or the building generates more energy as it uses itself.  Thus, building materials now have the largest environmental impact. Per European legislation, in 2020 all construction needs to be almost energy neutral, which means buildings that consume (almost) no energy. Therefore, in the next few years the focus will shift from energy to material. In addition, in the period between now and 2050 society will have completed the main part of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. There are various scenarios to make this transition happen even substantially earlier than 2050. Jacobson & Delucci, among others, argue in favour of completing the transition by 2030. In their article [3] “A Plan to Power 100 percent of the Planet with Renewables, wind, water and solar technologies can provide 100 percent of the world's energy, eliminating all fossil fuels.”



Only, the problem with materials will arise earlier than anticipated. Already we are facing a shortage of materials. If we wish to solve the energy problem as outlined above, as is evidenced by André Diederen's book [4] Global Resource Depletion. The REEs, i.e. rare earth elements, are lacking. This is a group of elements that are necessary for many applications in the high-tech industry, as additives they enable special alloys. This includes elements needed for batteries, transmissions for wind turbines, PV cells, cell phones, computers, TVs, etcetera.

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List of Rare Earth Elements

97% of the extraction sites are within China or are owned by Chinese companies. China has reduced the export substantially. Contrary to what their name suggests, these “Rare” Earth Elements are not so rare. In the past, these materials were extracted as a by-product of zinc and copper mining. However, because of its laborious and environmentally polluting production, these REEs are hardly extracted elsewhere. Many of the extracting mines have been closed now. In other words, in the Western world this presents us with a problem: we must start extracting REEs ourselves, this will happen and we will succeed, but in the intervening period of 5 to 10 years there will be a considerable shortage of these elements. This, in its turn, will have an impact on the rate at which we will switch to sustainable energy.


In addition to REEs, a shortage of raw materials starts to arise. This shortage includes many construction metals. Copper has nowadays become available in such limited quantities that it is often extracted from ore that contains only 8 kg. copper per ton ore. This is alarmingly limited, resulting in an extra impact on the environment. The industry argues that, “There is plenty of copper; so far, we have only extracted 12% of the entire copper reserve.” The question is, however, if we can only extract such a small amount of copper per ton ore, then how will we extract any remaining copper?

Due to a growing world population and an increasing level of prosperity, the need for raw materials increases. When construction in China and India made a real start, the steel price went up enormously. As is apparent from the graph below, steel prices reached a temporary climax at the end of 2008. Here, it is a matter of shortage as well, to some extent, which is reflected in the price of steel. This is likely to happen to other metals too, since many metals will become exhausted.

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A graphic representation of the steel price development in the past 6 years

The increase in prices of raw materials is another stimulus to the development of new techniques for the extraction of raw materials and to the search for new sites for extraction of raw materials. Resources that were hitherto economically unviable to extract, will now be extracted economically. Thus, resources increase or they keep up. If this happens gradually then scarcity will not be as imminent. Therefore, we refer to these resources as economically viable quantities, which may increase at higher prices. In the end, there will be limits to the resources as they become exhausted. However, this scenario is not likely to occur soon. 

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Top ten Scarce minerals and their application


Another problem arises because raw materials are not distributed equally across the earth. This leads to dependency on specific countries or regions. Consider the Western dependency on oil from the Middle East or on gas from Russia. Generally, we try to avoid this kind of dependency.

Some raw materials originate from conflict areas, where the conflict is funded by the extraction of raw materials. There is public opposition to such practices, so international agreements have been reached to derive these kinds of raw materials solely when the extraction has been guaranteed as “clean.” Many of the 17 metals that are processed in a cell phone originate from the African conflict area, Congo. In Congo, the bloodiest war ever since the Second World War is raging, almost entirely beyond our conscience. Cell phones there are referred to occasionally as “blood” cell phones analogous to “blood” diamonds.

Another problem that arises is, for instance, the occurrence of raw materials in vulnerable areas, such as in natural areas, and in the Arctic and the Antarctic, complicating a political solution to the extraction of these materials.

Finally, technology may yet fail to extract materials situated either underwater, or within water, or materials that can be found underground at great depths, or extracted solely in extreme weather conditions. The development of new technologies takes time and money. Some companies would like to start winning raw materials from the deep sea. This would trigger environmental issues so unless there are functioning solutions, extractions of any kind should be forbidden. 

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In Congo, a significant part of the war is funded by the sale of REEs and other raw materials such as diamonds.

When extracting raw materials, we are facing many restrictions:

  • Shortage, insufficiently available in economically viable quantities,
  • High costs, available, but it can only be extracted at the expense of a high use of energy,
  • Unequal distribution across the earth, resulting in a possible dependency on particular regions,
  • Social limitations, for example unacceptable because of its origin in conflict areas,
  • Ecological limitations, the unacceptability of extraction in natural areas,
  • Political limitations, extraction of raw materials in the Arctic or the Antarctic,
  • Technological limitations, we do not possess all techniques to economically extract all raw materials yet.


Several options are conceivable to counter the crisis of raw materials. I want to distinguish three possible scenarios that complement each other explicitly:

  1. Recycling and urban mining, for the short term (the next 10-20 years)
  2. Circular economy
  3. Zero-Materials, materials that have no or a very low environmental impact

I will discuss these options further down:


An important issue in the search of solutions can be found in reusing and in closed-loop recycling. In our discipline, this generally means renovating and repurposing buildings, minimizing demolition and new construction. When demolition is considered, bear in mind that the airframe and the facade together contain the bulk of the materials (approx. 70% of the entire building), so a renovation of the airframe should be an explicit option. This is in fact waste prevention. 

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Next is to consider the reuse of elements, this implies not crushing a concrete structure completely to concrete granulate, but dismantling it and completely reusing elements such as floors and walls. Construction material recycling comes last, and it is carried out as much as possible within its own production process. That is: processing concrete granulates into concrete again, instead of hiding it beneath a road. Another example is reusing leftover masonry rubble in the production process of masonry. Technically, there are hardly any limitations.

A high level of recycling is important. At my former department at the Delft University of Technology (TU) has already developed a method to recycle various metals cost-effectively, including gold and silver, from domestic waste products. In England, an experiment has started to retrieve platinum from roadside dust. This procedure is not yet profitable, but it is a very promising technique. It is recycling to the extreme. These techniques are referred to as urban mining. The raw materials are being retrieved from anything that can be found in cities, such as domestic waste, roadside dust, but also the many unused cell phones that everyone keeps at home. No less than 17 different metals are recycled from a cell phone, including 0.008 grams gold, 0.07 grams silver and 0.006 grams palladium, together worth € 0.50. Plus a number of rare earth metals.

All these efforts will not prevent real difficulties with some raw materials. Alternatives must be developed so we can continue to build the products, however, this must be done using other raw materials.

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This stone doorsill sits in a building from 1622; the right-hand side of the double doors is used only, so the doorsill wears on that side. At the 1951 restoration, the doorsill is turned, now showing already a small wear scar. However, this process can be repeated twice, which allows this doorsill to last 4 times 400 years, in principle.

The next 10-20 years, recycling will remain a very important way to retrieve raw materials and to close the raw materials loop. However, the recycling pyramid shows that prevention and reuse must gain in importance and that recycling as the primary method must continue to decrease. As long as we are in transition with a circular economy we will recycle, but once we are able to close the loop of this kind of economy the importance of recycling will diminish.


Circular economy is an economic system meant to maximize reusability of products and raw materials and to minimize value destruction. This is unlike the current linear system, in which raw materials are converted into products that are destroyed after use. The circular system has two cycles of materials. One is a biological cycle, in which residues will safely flow back into nature, after abundant use (or 'cascaded use'). The second one is a technical cycle of products or products parts that have been designed and marketed in such a way that they can be reused at a high-quality level. Thus, the economical value will be retained as much as possible. The system is 'restorative' in terms of both ecology and economy. The Dutch government intends to have a circular economy implemented by 2050. 

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The circular economy principle explained by using a smart phone and a telephone case (Source: MVO. the Netherlands).

The main principles of circular economy are:

  • Value preservation is maximized first by considering product reuse, then by reuse of parts and finally by reuse of raw materials.
  • Products are designed and produced in such a manner that they can be disassembled easily at the end of the operational phase, and that materials flows can easily be separated.
  • During the production, use and processing of the product no pollutants are emitted.
  • The parts and raw materials of 'consumer products' (such as a lamp) are reused without deterioration (for example in a new lamp, or perhaps in a new notebook).
  • The raw materials of 'consumer products' (such as toothpaste) are biodegradable and they will be returned to nature (after possible extraction of valuable raw materials).
  • Producers retain ownership of consumer products, customers pay for their use of it, not for the possession.
  • Since a product's performance determines its value, delivering the right quality becomes extremely important to a producer.
  • One of the most important factors for success is (cross-sectoral) chain cooperation, aimed at the creation of multiple values. As a result, not only does the economical value increase of all businesses within the chain, but the ecological value and the social value increase as well.
  • long lasting and easy to disassemble so they can be recycled, and
  • products that use as little energy as possible.


For instance, within the circular economy one does not buy a lamp, but one pays for the 'light hours' (or lumens). The costs of the raw materials and the electricity needed to use the lamp have been included in the price per hour. When the lamp breaks down, the producer delivers a new one. He reuses the parts or the raw materials of the former one. It is important to the producer to deliver good service by using products that are:


Zero-materials are those materials that cause no or hardly any environmental impact in their lifespan. The environmental impact can be determined in a so-called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). A LCA checks all stages of a material's life to see where environmental impact occurs.

In a zero-material's life, no (or hardly any) environmental impact arises in this life cycle assessment. This starts with the extraction of the raw material. To cause no environmental impact, it would be most desirable to extract a material from renewable raw materials or to emanate it from recycling. A material that grows annually or over a slightly longer period, and that is harvested, causes no environmental impact during the growth. When the harvest can be carried out without environmental impact as well, this part is successful. However, it is important that renewable materials do not occupy agricultural lands that could be used for food production instead.

Examples of renewable materials are timber, reed, bamboo, sheep wool, and clay (in the Netherlands). The Netherlands are a delta region, in which a lot of clay is deposited. Clay pits in flood plains can be harvested anew after 40 years. Hence, clay complies with the definition of renewable.

The next step in determining detrimental environmental impact is to examine the degree of material processing. A tree that is selectively cut down in a sustainable forest and subsequently is lumbered into beams and planks will have a limited environmental impact. The concern here is primarily the lumber industry. When carried out using electrically (sustainably generated) or using biodiesel, the environmental impact of such actions is lessened. 

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Bamboo is a wonderful example of a renewable raw material with many applications

The transport and the processing of the raw material requires a low environmental impact. For instance, think of thatched roofing. Reed is cut, but no environmental impact occurs by growth or harvest. Subsequently, the reed is attached to the roof manually. The thatched roof will protect the building for many years from the cold and from wind and weather. All that is required is an occasional mending or patching. Afterwards the reed can be torn down from the roof and can be composted or burnt. Practically no environmental impact occurs en route.

This is the way to approach materials, if we wish to regard zero-materials as construction products. It may lead to a limitation certain of types of materials, but enough materials will remain to construct a building. This may not be so at the start, but once bioplastics can be retrieved from agricultural materials, then many products may be added to the group of zero-materials. There are still materials that are extracted from the earth, but this way, we will need less of those materials.

Metals may also be considered zero-materials if we recycle them. Energy is still a problem though because currently the energy most often used is fossil energy. However, if we are able to use sustainable energy to re-melt scrap to metal, this becomes actually a zero-material. Zero-materials must be used widely to maintain this kind of sustainable energy.


Gradually products inspired by nature have been launched. For instance, over the last year a roof covering was made available that is made from 96% natural materials. Traditionally, the base of many types of roof covering is petroleum. The new type of roof covering from natural raw materials received an Ecolabel for sustainable construction (in Dutch: “DUBOkeur product”) of course, indicating it belongs to the products with the least environmental impact, in the category of flat roof coverings.

At the department Materials & Environment at Civil Engineering in Delft one is currently working on developing “self-healing concrete” [5] This comes down to the production of concrete, in which bacterial “pills” have been processed. If concrete tears (a typical feature of concrete) water may permeate the concrete through tiny cracks, which then corrodes the reinforcement, resulting in decay of concrete.

However, concrete equipped with bacterial pills works differently. A crack through which water enters, leads to the immediate awakening of the sleeping bacteria. The bacteria can be at rest for centuries. Once exposed to water the bacteria aids in the creation of calcite, this calcite closes the crack. The bacteria then ceases further production once the seal is dried.

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Bacteria in concrete respond to water permeation causing calcite precipitation, by which the water permeation will be stopped

Expanding upon this idea-- it is feasible to produce a binder - let us call it “cement” for the sake of convenience, although it is not cement - out of a chemical composition similar to cement, from mere renewable raw materials. These raw materials can be extracted from the ashes of the burnt stem of, for instance, a tomato plant [6] This way the tomato growers from the Dutch Westland region may offer multiple products, namely: tomatoes, current generated by their Bio-cogeneration facility, while the biofuel itself is cultivated, as well as the ashes of the burnt biofuel, containing the ingredients for organically grown cement.

This scenario is only at the start of the research phase, but it is feasible that in 10-15 years from now we will grow concrete in this manner. That will be a significant step forward in the reduction of the cement industry's enormous CO2 emission.

As you can see we as a global community are on our way to zero-materials with nature as our source of inspiration, aren't we? Michiel Haas MSc/PhD is founding partner of the Nederlands Instituut voor Bouwbiologie en Ecologie (NIBE – Dutch Institute for Building Biology and Ecology), founding partner of and is retired professor of Materials & Sustainability at Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands), faculty Civil Engineering.

October 20th, 2016

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[1] Towards the Development of Carbon Dioxide Neutral Renewable Cement (BioCement), H.M. Jonkers, N.N. Carr, Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, Proceedings of the International Conference held at the University of Dundee, Scotland, UK, July 2012.

[2] Application of bacteria as self-healing agent for the development of sustainable concrete; Henk M. Jonkers ea. Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, Elsevier Ecological Engineering 36, 2010.

[3] A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables, Wind, water and solar technologies can provide 100 percent of the world's energy, eliminating all fossil fuels. Here's how; By Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi; Scientific American, November 2009.

[4] Global Resource Depletion, Managed Austerity and the Elements of Hope, André Diederen, ISBN 9789059724259, 2010.

[5] Duurzaam bouwen: bouwen aan de toekomst (Sustainable construction: building the future), WTCB, ir. J. Van Dessel and ir.-arch. K. Putzeys.

[6] Waarom we ons met 0-materialen moeten bezighouden (Why we should engage in zero-materials), Michiel Haas, NIBE, Duurzaam Gebouwd (Sustainably Constructed), May 2010. Prevention

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