Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Will the end of the era of the internal combustion engine herald a golden age for mining?

There is no doubt that the age of the internal combustion engine is drawing to a close. Recently Britain followed France in declaring a ban on petrol and diesel cars from 2040, to overcome the enormous contribution to air pollution from such vehicles.
There will be a massive boom in metal mining as electric replaces the internal combustion engine, and copper, nickel, lithium and cobalt should particularly benefit (as well as non-metals such as graphite).
But everything comes with a price of course. Analysts are expecting a 100-fold increase in the production of lithium, the key material in electric car batteries, which contain around 14% by weight of this lightest of metals. Much of the supply will come from South America, particularly Chile and Bolivia, which have around 70% of the world’s reserves. China and Australia also provide lithium. It is generally thought that lithium-ion batteries are primarily made of lithium and that if we transition the world’s car fleet to electric, it will create a supply problem. While it is certainly true that lithium demand is expected to rise very significantly, there are abundant supplies and production is likely to keep up, but will require accelerated production from all known reserves and new resources will need to be found and put into production.
But it would be a mistake to focus only on lithium. There are several other raw materials in batteries and they each can create bottlenecks if not properly addressed. According to Glencore, a typical electric car would need about 160kg of copper, 11kg of cobalt and 11kg of nickel.
Cobalt is a critical element in lithium-ion batteries, such batteries already consuming 42 per cent of the metal mined and demand will soar as the world switches from petrol and diesel to electric cars. About two-thirds of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, including much that is mined by hand, sometimes in appalling conditions by poorly paid labourers, including women and children, who do not benefit from the country's vast mineral wealth, which includes gold, diamonds, tin, coltan, copper and cobalt. Industrial mines operated by the likes of Glencore, the world’s biggest cobalt supplier, have much better standards than the artisanal mines, but it is difficult to verify whether cobalt from the artisanal mines is entering a supply chain of great complexity, and ensuring that ordinary Congolese people actually benefit from the county's riches is fraught with difficulties.
One of the areas that has not been properly thought out, although there are twenty years to do it, is how the electricity grid will cope with the increase in electrical energy needed to power these cars. Politicians talk blithely about renewables being able to deal with this increase and that batteries will be charged at night during off-peak periods, leading to only a 10% increase in power requirements. Solar power is not too good at night, however, so maybe it is wind power that will provide the shortfall? In which case Britain might start to look like a giant pin-cushion, bristling with wind turbines. And another cause for concern is that  wind turbines themselves rely on very powerful magnets, of which neodymium is still an important element. So can mining and processing of rare earth deposits to produce neodymium keep up with demand, and let us not forget that producing this key element is not without major environmental concerns (see posting of 11 February 2013).
What is clear is that mining and mineral processing are going to play a big part in the move to electric vehicles, and that research into recycling of key elements such as lithium, cobalt and neodymium is also critical, all part of the move towards the circular economy, which makes next year's Sustainable Minerals '18 conference in Namibia and Hi-Tech Metals '18 in Cape Town all the more relevant.


  1. In the long term we should expect copper to be replaced by carbon nanotechnology and batteries to be replaced by ceramic capacitors. The same way that iron and chrome have been replaced by polymers in cars, other metals will be replaced too. They are just so scarce, and will only keep getting more and more expensive to use.
    Adam Johnston

    1. Thanks for getting this discussion (hopefully) off to a good start Adam. It will be interesting to see if these replacements come to fruition, but I hope they don't - not just yet anyway!

  2. Off-grid charging is now a reality and soon the whole globe will be dotted with free charge-points; time will tell.

  3. Good to see the bright future- for mining and mineral processing-needs a lot of innovation and "out of box thinking" apart from learning from other science and engineering disciplines.
    Above all more investments are needed in geological exploration to widen our resource base; efficient techniques to identify these elements in a ore body and methods to recover them are to be given top priority. Yes, future is exciting and challenging.

  4. Well well
    It's a nice initiative bit different. Always new materials and related areas are fascinating. The need and idea to generate the same must take place either in the institutions or in the grads classes.apart from the abunda1 of other Minerals one has to think a step ahead i.e. value addition. That's where a mining and mineral engg. Should focus. Challenge is to extract these Minerals and sustain the process for long time.
    Rama Murthy

  5. An interesting article on nickel mining and the hidden environmental cost of electric cars, in the Guardian newspaper

  6. I am sure that whatever new technology will emerge there will be interesting tasks for mining engineers worrying about the sustainable processing of natural and anthropogenic minerals and materials, i.e. primary and secondary raw materials. I believe the trend of increasing complexity in material mixes will increase, thus demanding new technologies for sutainable recovery of many elements. However, with respect to the end of the combustion engine I believe that it is too close minded to believe that the electrical cars of the present generation will be the emerging technology. I tend to be more cautious for I believe there needs to be new maybe yet unknown solutions coming to the market and that could bring new material mixes, new mining and recycling demands. It is indeed an exciting time of changes and new tasks.


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