Sunday, 21 July 2019

Is Zero Carbon by 2050 attainable?

The UN Paris Agreement demands that humanity must reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of this century. British Prime Minister Theresa May has committed the UK to attain this goal by 2050, making Britain the first major economy to do so. Some significant changes are happening already – new coal-free records are being set every week and diesel and petrol cars are set to be phased out by 2040. Established zero-emissions technology such as wind and solar power are all rapidly growing.
How realistic are these goals, however? Unfortunately politicians promise great things without a passing thought to the fact that to attain these goals will put enormous demands on what are very finite resources of raw materials.
Phasing out of the internal combustion engine is a very worthwhile aim, as petrol and diesel vehicles are a major source of pollutants and greenhouse gases, but electric vehicles do not grow on trees- they need substantial amounts of metals and non-metals, all of which have to be mined.
Ten years ago China had no electric cars, but last year sales reached over 1 million and are climbing rapidly. It is projected that by 2050 there will be around 1 billion more electric cars in the world than there are now. Each car will need around 80 kg of copper, and add to this copper in electric lorries and buses, and around 20% extra copper would need to be mined annually.

Although there are adequate reserves of copper, the latest analysis by Bank of America Merrill Lynch suggests that new copper developments will not swamp the market and create oversupply any time soon. Average mine grades fell from 1.31% in 2000 to 0.94% in 2018, raising operating costs and slowing the enthusiasm to develop new mines. This has been exacerbated by the low esteem in which the industry is currently being held, inhibiting capital investment, and the need to obtain social licenses to operate (Is mining facing its second existential crisis?).
But there is much more to electric vehicles than just copper. The lithium-ion battery is the heart of an EV and the figures below show estimates of the commodities in a typical battery pack, and how the demand on commodities would change if all cars became electric by 2050.

Source: UBS Estimates
Currently around 45,000 tonnes of lithium are produced annually, from hard rock ores containing spodumene and petalite, and from lithium brines. Reserves are estimated at about 16m tonnes but production will need to be significantly ramped up to satisfy demand, and potential new areas of operation, such as the lithium brines in Cornwall, are being evaluated.
Cobalt is an essential element in EV batteries, but unfortunately around 60% is from the politically unstable Democratic Republic of Congo and Roskill estimates that 16.5kt of cobalt was produced by illegal artisanal mining in the DRC last year, much of it involving children and accounting for many fatalities. As such, artisanal production accounted for roughly 15% of the country’s cobalt output.
It has been estimated that a 20% increase in UK-generated electricity would be required to charge the EVs to be driven in the UK. This, and all electricity, would have to be generated mainly by non-fossil fuels if a zero carbon footprint is to be attained, although expensive carbon-capture and storage could be used for electricity generated by natural gas. 
Wind power gives many the impression of getting something for nothing, but of course that is not the case. Construction of a wind turbine requires a great deal of energy and there is also an environmental factor, not least involving the construction of the concrete foundation, as the cement industry is one of the world's greatest emitters of CO2.
The heart of the wind turbine is the nacelle and inside it carries the technology required for converting kinetic energy into electricity. Hence it is the most complex component, made up of a series of elements which are widely differing in nature. Each of these elements has its own associated technology and manufacturing processes. Copper is a critical metal, and is used in high quantities but a crucial component within the nacelle of large turbines is the powerful direct-drive permanent magnet generator, which contains a critical rare earth element, neodymium. Neodymium is commonly used as part of a Neodymium-Iron-Boron alloy (Nd2Fe14B) which is used to make the most powerful magnets in the world. It has been used in small quantities in common technologies for quite a long time – hi-fi speakers, hard drives and lasers, for example. But only with the rise of alternative energy solutions has it really come to prominence, for use in electric vehicle and wind turbines. A direct-drive permanent-magnet generator for a top capacity wind turbine would use around 2 tonnes of neodymium-based permanent magnet material.
 Neodymium is found mostly in monazite and bastnaesite. Due to the fact that these minerals also contain lanthanides and other rare earth elements, it is difficult to isolate neodymium and it is an energy intensive and potentially environmentally harmful process, carried out mainly in China, by far the world's greatest source of rare earth metals.  Leaching  involves acid or sodium hydroxide at high concentrations, producing potentially hazardous wastes. Separation, concentration and recovery all  require much energy either for the process itself or for the reagents in the process. Monazite and basnaesite are associated with radioactive actinides such as thorium and uranium and safe disposal of these wastes is problematical.  So when you look up at a huge wind turbine, it is not as 'green' as often made out to be.
Solar power is also dependent on finite resources, all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market being reliant on 'hi-tech metals' such as high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium, often referred to as 'critical' because of their recovery being dependent as by-products of the mining of other metals, such as zinc, or due to their natural scarcity.
Nuclear energy is the preferred option for many people. It is carbon free, but since Chernobyl it has been side-lined by many countries as a potentially very hazardous operation with no really acceptable means of disposing of the eventual waste.
In an ideal world we would like a single energy source which would convert limitless fuel into vast amounts of energy, drastically reducing the costs of metal extraction and thus easing the supply of the commodities needed to satisfy society as it moves into the 4th Industrial Revolution. This Holy Grail of energy exists, the science is well understood, but the engineering problems are immense. Just over 4 years ago I wrote about the quest to contain nuclear fusion, a carbon-free process that produces four times more power than nuclear fission, with no waste disposal problems, and a fuel, isotopes of hydrogen, which is abundant (Is the end of the world of mineral processing nigh?).
Despite billions of dollars having been thrown at it, fusion’s imposing challenge has not yet been met. For atoms to fuse, a huge amount of energy must be generated. As such, materials must be developed that can withstand hundreds of millions of degrees. To create fusion energy, light nuclei of deuterium and tritium are fused within high-pressure, high-temperature plasma, which is contained by a magnetic field. As yet, scientists haven’t refined this magnetic confinement efficiently enough to reach a break-even point – where the energy output equals the energy input.
But immense amounts of money have been expended by various companies. Lockheed Martin claimed 5 years ago that its compact fusion reactor, which will fit "on the back of a truck" and produce a 100 MW output, enough to power a town of 80,000 people, would be developed and deployed within 10 years. The company claimed that the key to the success of its reactor concept lay in a magnetic bottle that withstands 150 million-degree temperatures while offering 90% size reduction over previous concepts.  Lockheed Martin's plan was to build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year with a prototype to follow within five years, operational reactors being available in 10 years time.

Lockheed Martin registered a patent in March last year, but no further information is available, but in France construction has begun on a $20 billion dollar fusion reactor ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). This is the most advanced fusion reactor in the world, but is many years away from providing a source of fusion energy.
Construction of ITER
Limitless energy generated by fusion will eventually happen but maybe not this century? But never underestimate the ingenuity of man; if great minds get together to solve a problem there is a fair chance that they know that the problem can eventually be solved. There are great parallels between fusion and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.  The science behind the LHC experiment is fairly simple, but the engineering problems are immense, but were overcome despite much opposition.
In an excellent article in The Times (July 1st 2019) Science Editor Tom Whipple evokes the spirit of the Apollo moon landings, showing what humans can achieve when they put their minds to it. Putting a man on the moon 50 years ago was a staggering, almost impossible, feat of engineering, considering the computing power then available, but the USA threw 4% of the federal budget at it and achieved the impossible. As Whipple observed, landing on the moon was not impossible, as President Kennedy would not have called for it eight years earlier. Engineering problems, no matter how formidable, can be overcome, just as 25 years before the moon landing the Manhattan project, working on the basis of a "simple" scientific equation, utilised the best brains available and limitless funds to develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, a feat which is even now beyond the capabilities of most countries.
British Chancellor Philip Hammond has said that achieving a target of zero carbon would cost the UK £1tn and could thus require spending cuts to public services. Whipple concludes by saying that if governments can intervene at scale for a largely symbolic mission to a barren rock, then surely we can do the same to try to save what life remains on our own rock? To paraphrase the famous line from Kennedy's 1961 speech, which global leader has the guts to say "A sun on Earth before the next decade is out"?
I have made a note in my diary to come back to this posting in 10 years time! In the meantime, the issues discussed above are very relevant to two MEI Conferences next year: Sustainable Minerals '20 in Falmouth in June, and Hi-Tech Metals '20 in Cape Town in November of that year.

Twitter @barrywills


  1. Barry your blog posting is a very good summary of some of the challenges involved to achieve this and how sensible or realistic a goal it really is
    Steve Flatman, Maelgwyn Mineral Services, UK

  2. Fantastic article, Barry.
    Now let me look at the future from my "prism" Minerals are finite(till we find new) and site specific. in view of this only some countries will have an edge.I see another cycle like nuclear club, petroleum cartel--some countries making many feel helpless and leading to---.
    Why so called universities of global repute and research laboratories of international excellence and top management Institutes break the problem into small issues, give scientific and technological solutions and management issues at global level be defined before this issue becomes a disaster for some and leverage for dominance for others--may be all this is being done but I see more trade wars and conflicts if we do not have a globally acceptable solution.

  3. It's not only the zero carbon target that is a challenge, it's the recovery of the waste residues that these new technologies produce, particularly from Lithium Nitride batteries.

    In promoting battery technology might we in the future be facing similar environmental issues that diesel has today?

    In my opinion there are both challenges and real opportunities for the minerals engineering community to not only lead the drive towards a carbon free environment but also develop sustainable waste free recycling solutions for the recovery of many of our raw materials.

    At ZincOx we developed processes to recover Zinc from Electric Arc Furnace Dust (EAFD) producing Zinc Oxide, Pig Iron and a small percentage of residual slag that went to road base, leaving no waste streams a real example of what we can all achieve.

    The project also taught me an important lesson, as minerals engineers we must think about every new process with the end in mind, wherever possible our technologies must be sustainable, & minimise environmental impact

    In my opinion there are real opportunities to recover future raw materials from the waste streams of today & our profession must be seen to be taking a lead in this vital work to improve our environment.

    Tony Rhymer, Birmingham, UK

    1. I agree Tony. I don't think we have caught up since you graduated from CSM back in 1983. It would be good to see you in Falmouth next year for Sustainable Minerals '20- looks like you would have interesting ideas to contribute.

    2. Barry
      The more I think about this subject, the more I believe it isn't necessarily a simple zero carbon target that we should be looking to deliver.

      As experts in our industry we should have the ambition and curiosity to examine every process with a cradle to grave approach Our philosophy should be one, where we seek to minimise all environmental impacts from the outset.

      As professionals I believe we have always had a duty to meet this objective, but more than ever as minerals engineers with many transferable skills we should be taking the lead to deliver innovative technical solutions across the life cycle of all industrial processes particular when it comes to examining and potentially recycling waste streams.
      Tony Rhymer

    3. Exactly Tony! One of the main themes of Sustainable Minerals '20

  4. The MEI Blog is widely respected in the mining industry but I feel that this excellent article should have wider exposure outside our industry. Apart from showing how zero carbon will stretch natural resources it also highlights the vital importance of the mining industry to society as a whole, something which is very rarely appreciated.
    Paul Cheetham, Wrexham, UK

  5. Yes, this is an excellent piece that deserves a much wider audience than the blog itself can reach. I would like to suggest that it be submitted to a leading newspaper with global reach e.g., The Guardian, or any other print/on-line media resource that has a wide social and environmental following.

    On a related issue, focused on "nuclear power as a rational energy choice", I recently wrote an op ed for our daily newspaper in Victoria BC, Canada. This juxtaposed nuclear with other options from a health and human impact perspective. For those interested, it may be accessed at:

    For what my opinion may be worth as a public health scientist, I think Barry's piece would challenge and illuminate the mind-set of many in the general public (including policy makers) who are genuinely concerned about these issues, but don't know where to turn for objective and reliable information.

    1. Thanks Franklin. I totally agree with what you say in your article. Risks are indeed associated with all energy sources, but on balance nuclear power is clearly one of the safest and more reliable options to help meet the energy demands of most developed and developing nations. As you say, fossil fuels are by far the most hazardous to human health, and endanger the planet through global warming.

      You conclude by saying that as technologies advance for renewable energy (e.g., solar and wind), no single source will be sufficient to meet society’s need for a balanced and reliable supply. I agree, but fusion could provide that source in the future, if the will is there and the capital is provided to develop it. A great deal of capital would be needed, but unfortunately priorities seem to be on other things, such a developing, at enormous cost, a high speed rail link between London and Birmingham which will shave 30 minutes off the journey.

  6. That question can't be answered based on today's technologies. Battery materials are changing fast. Hydrogen technologies will come into play etc. The only clear statements today are
    1. whatever technology (mix) will finally succeed - it will trigger an enormous demand for selected materials
    2. recycling will cover a very small portion of that demand only
    3. Save longterm access to a wide variety of raw materials will be vital to sustainability

    Holger Lieberwirth, Director of Institute of Mineral Processing Machines at Technical University Bergakademie Freiberg, Germany

  7. Good stuff Barry! Even the World Bank realises that "Climate Smart Mining" is the big challenge here.
    httpss:// Renewables, batteries, comms (esp. mobile phones), hybrid and electric cars are the largest arguments for the support of mining, improvements in its practices and investment in the skills and R&D needed to meet the challenge of demand.

    1. Thanks Bill, and for the excellent link, which reinforces what I was saying

  8. Barry, this is a very thoughtful,apt and timely article. It deserves much wider circulation than as this blog, especially to the BBC and other media outlets as well as to various levels of government.
    With my best wishes
    John Ralston

  9. This highlights the absurdity of Extinction Rebellion's demand for zero carbon by 2025
    Stewart Mutter, Watford, UK

  10. All are excellent analyses and should be widely discussed. However we should not overlook the fact that the destruction of Earth's life supporting ecosystem is roughly proportional to the energy humans produce, since ultimately, energy is the limiting factor. If you invent a limitless energy black box, as you seem to aspire to, you will just accelerate the current ecological annihilation.

    If all limits are self imposed, the first step to a safe, sane and sustainable world is to define and enforce limits on the negative impacts on our natural life support system, which is technically simpler than creating the fusion or other energy limitless black box.

    Doug Yuille, Australia

  11. Although provocative, I don't think Doug Yuille's analysis is sufficient. In causal thinking, a necessary cause is one without which a condition cannot occur, and "the energy humans produce" meets this criterion. However, sufficient cause (aka: a complete causal mechanism) is defined as a set of minimal conditions and events that inevitably produce an adverse outcome. If our main goal is to reduce ecosystem risks posed by excessive GHG production, then it is not the correlation with energy production per se that is the underlying issue: it is how we produce our energy that lies at its core. I fully agree with Doug that we need to define limits on the negative impacts on natural life support systems (all species included), and how we produce our energy is obviously critical to addressing this. In the meantime, when considering limits outside the sphere of the energy debate, we also need to address other measures such as the enormous methane output from our gross overproduction of ruminants for food, as well as fertilizer run-off and a host of other considerations. These are all urgent issues if we are to reduce and ultimately (where possible) to reverse the ecosystem destruction now taking place.


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