Thursday, 13 May 2021

The Rare Metals War

The resources race is on. Powering our digital lives and green technologies are some of the Earth’s most precious metals - but they are running out. And what will happen when they do?

The green revolution will reduce our dependency on nuclear power, coal, and oil, heralding a new era free of pollution, fossil-fuel shortages, and cross-border tensions. But there is a hidden dark side to this naive and seemingly Utopian vision.

In the international bestseller The Rare Metals War, Guillaume Pitron reveals that by breaking free of fossil fuels we are in fact setting ourselves up for a new dependence - on rare metals which are essential to electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels, as well as our smartphones, computers, tablets, and other technologies. But the majority of consumers know very little about how rare metals are mined and traded, or their environmental, economic, and geopolitical costs.

Much of what Pitron says is not new, and has been highlighted on the blog over the years, but the book brings together in a single volume an exposé of the ticking time-bomb that lies beneath our new technological order. 

Last November in Critical Metals and the UK's "Green Industrial Revolution" the focus was on the many metals and non-metals which are essential in the manufacture of wind turbines and electric vehicles, noting that huge amounts of energy are required just to mine and extract these materials. Some of the most important metals are classed as 'critical' mainly due to geopolitical reasons or shortage of supply and their production in many cases cannot be classed as 'green'.

Around 2.5 tonnes of neodymium are required in a wind turbine, but neodymium and other rare earth elements are not actually rare at all. They occur in the earth's crust in much greater abundance than the so-called common metals such as copper, lead and zinc, but they are very thinly distributed among the crustal rocks, and only occur in economic deposits, mainly of the minerals bastnaesite and monazite, in certain parts of the earth. Unfortunately we are almost completely dependent on China for their supply, accounting for 90% of the world’s rare earths production. China also controls the refining and processing sectors and mining and extraction is highly energy intensive, using mainly fossil fuels, and is by no means environmentally friendly (posting of 11th February 2013), as also vividly described by Pitron.

The book comes at an opportune time, as last week the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that the world won’t be able to tackle the climate crisis unless there is a sharp increase in the supply of metals required to produce clean energy technologies, the demand soaring for copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements. But they are all vulnerable to price volatility and shortages, the agency warned, because the quality of available deposits is declining and mining companies face stricter environmental and social standards.

Limited access to known mineral deposits is another risk factor. Three countries together control more than 75% of the global output of lithium, cobalt and rare earth elements. The Democratic Republic of Congo was responsible for 70% of cobalt production in 2019, and China produced 60% of rare earth elements while refining 50% to 70% of lithium and cobalt, and nearly 90% of rare earth elements. Australia is the other power player.

The average electric car requires six times more minerals than a conventional car, according to the IEA. Lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite are crucial to batteries. Electricity networks need huge amounts of copper and aluminum, while rare earth elements are used in the magnets needed to make wind turbines work.

Meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement will require a “significant” increase in clean energy, according to the IEA, which estimates that the annual installation of wind turbines would need to grow threefold by 2040 and electric car sales would need to expand 25 times over the same period. Reaching net zero emissions by 2050 would require even more investment (see also posting of 21 July 2019).

“The data shows a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realising those ambitions,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, said in a statement. “The challenges are not insurmountable, but governments must give clear signals about how they plan to turn their climate pledges into action.”

To address the looming challenges, the IEA advocates setting a clear policy agenda to encourage miners to develop new sources of supply, and boosting recycling of raw materials, an area which will be the subject of sessions at next month's Biomining '21 and Sustainable Minerals '21.


1 comment:

  1. Let me take a holistic view. Any mineral, may it major, minor, trace element. rare earth, all have to be recovered. Full elemental analyses from the exploration stage have to be the base. We have to liberate each of them and recover in an environmentally acceptable and economically viable manner-. For me fine particle processing by dry processes is the future need and challenge,All minerals and coal are going to be used for many decades.I may be dreaming but it will happen.
    The forthcoming events Biomining '21 and Sustainable Minerals '21.will bring new dimensions to our goal


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