To keep the global temperature at acceptable levels, the world has to go through an energy transition that leaves behind the era of fossil fuels. But the technologies that promote this change, such as solar energy, wind power or electric cars, They require the extraction of a large amount of minerals for their manufacture.. An electric car, for example, requires six times more minerals than a conventional one; an onshore wind power plant requires nine times more minerals than a gas-fired one.
So as the world increases its use of these technologies, the demand for a number of minerals will increase. Will there be enough resources to meet the needs of a new energy era? What other negative impacts will it cause on the environment? and how can we mitigate them? These questions will take center stage on the global stage for years to come. At the moment, what we know is this.
What are transition minerals and what are they used for?
The commitment to renewable energies falls mainly on copper, lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, graphite, copper, zinc and rare earths, among others. These elements are the heart of electric cars, wind turbines and other energieswhich promise to keep global temperature rises at bay.
All technologies use minerals in different proportions, but electric vehicle batteries are the most demanding, particularly lithium, which is crucial for battery performance, longevity and energy density.
It is estimated that the demand for lithium will increase 40 times by 2040, followed by graphite, cobalt and nickel (which is estimated to grow 20 to 25 times). The construction of power charging networks for electric vehicles also requires large amounts of copper, which is estimated to double during this same period. In 2021, the demand for copper from Chile, the world’s largest producer, has already increased by around 80% compared to the previous year, according to BBC Mundo.
The water that is used can no longer be reusedfor all the toxic and radioactive waste that remains
In terms of electricity generation, wind power is the most demanding of minerals, particularly when the turbines are installed offshore, where they can require up to three times more copper to transmit power along the cables than plants on the ground. Onshore: In 2020, the volume of copper required worldwide for offshore wind power generation was around 8,000 kg per megawatt of power produced, compared to 2,900 kg per megawatt for onshore wind. Construction also requires aluminum, zinc, and rare earths.
The towers of wind turbines and transmitters are made of steel, zinc and aluminum and represent around 80% of the total weight. Some turbine designs use direct drive magnets, which contain the rare earth metals neodymium and dysprosium. It is estimated that around 20% of all installed wind turbines use rare earth magnets. Wind turbines also contain copper in the generators, and carbon fiber and glass in the blades, in addition to the concrete used to build the towers.
Solar power requires energy storage units.a, both in the form of individual batteries for private use and on a large scale in electricity grids. This implies a demand for minerals in lithium, aluminum, cobalt, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, nickel and graphite batteries.
Batteries consist of two electrodes, or electrical conductors, called the cathode and anode, and an electrolyte through which they exchange ions, providing a charge or discharge. Different minerals can serve these purposes. The high electrochemical potential of lithium makes it a valuable component of high-energy-density lithium-ion rechargeable batteries.
Most lithium ion batteries use graphite as the anode., which means that graphite will be the most sought after mineral for energy storage. Cathodes vary more: they most often use nickel, but various mixtures of cobalt, lithium and manganese are also common.
Environmental impact of mineral extraction
In the shadow of the promise of clean energy are the negative impacts of obtaining and processing the minerals of the energy transition. Exploitation in mines generates ecological damage that is difficult to sustain in the long term. In the case of lithium, for example, for every ton extracted, up to 2 million liters of water are required, depleting groundwater resources. This affects communities, flora and fauna.
In Chile, for example, in the Salar de Atacama, one of the driest deserts on the continent —and more abundant in lithium— there is a nature reserve for two native species of flamingos, whose subsistence depends on the ecosystem remaining practically intact. Due to the extraction of lithium, populations have declined in recent years.
The social implications of mineral exploitation of transition is also exacting high bills in Latin America. Rebecca Ray, Zara C Albright and Kehan Wang, development researchers at Boston University, have suggested that the lithium triangle countries (Argentina, Chile and Bolivia) develop institutional capacity to generate more responsible management of the mineral with greater participation of local communities, in order to reduce the negative impacts of exploitation.
Rare earths (or rare metals) they are a key part of the transition, and without knowing it, we interact with them in the palm of our hands every day. Smartphones, tablets and other devices with touch screens use them. They are valued because they are very good conductors of electricity and have magnetic properties that make them useful for creating batteries for electric cars or touch screens.
Rare earths – neodymium, scandium and yttrium, to name a few – are very complex to extract, as they are found embedded in certain minerals and alloys: although they are abundant, they are rarely found in their pure form and tend to occur in low concentrations . Elisa Fabila, a chemical engineer from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), specializing in the study of metallurgical chemistry, explains that the extraction process is complicated and invasive.
“To separate the ore [de los otros compuestos] an ionic reaction is needed and the residues of this reaction are what become so polluting”, explains Fabila.
“The water that is used can no longer be reused, due to all the toxic and radioactive waste that remains. […] Although these alternatives do not produce emissions, they are not as clean as we thought,” he adds.
Other non-rare terrestrial minerals essential for the energy transition also have detrimental extraction processes. Copper, for example, is extracted by detonating explosives in cracks in the ground in open-pit mines.. On average “300 square meters of soil are lost for each explosion”, explains Fabila, which can hardly be recovered. All the properties of the earth vanish, since the explosion needs to break down the components of the soil in order to remove the metals.
China is the country that stars in the extraction of rare metals. According to data from Statista, in 2021, the country represents 60% of the world production of rare earths. In recent years, China has limited its production and export to other parts of the planet, and has brought up rare earths in a trade dispute with the United States. The largest of all its mines is in Baiyun Obo, in Inner Mongolia, where, according to NASA, almost half of the world’s production of rare earths is located.
It is estimated that the demand for rare earths may grow three to seven times by 2040depending on advances in battery technology and electric turbines.
The problem of scarcity, geographic concentration and quality
As the world moves towards an energy landscape that requires more minerals, the question is being raised as to whether there will be enough resources to meet global demand. There are several factors that will influence this, and it will largely depend on the developments that are achieved in battery chemistry.
In the future, according to the IEA report, a mixed scenario is expected– Some minerals, such as hard rock lithium and cobalt, are likely to be in surplus in the short term, while processed lithium, battery-grade nickel, and key rare earth elements (eg, neodymium, dysprosium) they could face limited supply in the coming years as they cannot keep up with demand.
Other problems that could arise have to do with the geographical concentration of minerals. China and the Republic of the Congo concentrate more than 60% of cobalt production. The New York Times has extensively documented the ongoing battle for control of the resources in this area. If there were to be problems with the supply chain in producing countries, this would directly affect battery prices and production. On the other hand, it is important to consider that a supply problem would only affect new products such as electric cars and wind turbines to be built, since existing ones will not be affected by a lack of minerals. Unlike combustion vehicles, for example, electric cars that already work can do so for the life of the battery, which can range from 10 to 20 years, and is not affected by a lack of new mineral supplies.
Solutions for the availability of minerals
Responding to the future scenario, IEA experts say that it is necessary to take a series of measures to ensure the availability of minerals. On the one hand, it is essential to raise awareness in the countries to invest in the development of mines and, on the other, it is crucial to develop more efficient technologies with the use of critical minerals. Instead of relying or putting all the bet on minerals in the energy transition, find alternatives that are less harmful to soils and water, such as biomass.
Recycling is also an important element that relieves the pressure on the primary supply. Harald Gottsche, President and CEO of the BMW Group Plant San Luis Potosí in Mexico, explained in an exclusive interview for Chinese Dialogue how the company wants to reduce its impact throughout the distribution chain.
“Circularity starts from product design, with the use of secondary materials in our value chains, as well as with the recycling of BMW Group vehicles at the end of their life cycle,” explains Gottsche. For this reason, the company’s plans for the near future include reducing the use of cobalt in the cathodes of its current generation of batteries to less than 10%.
“Our latest generation of electric motors is built without using rare earths”Gottsche adds. Other big companies like Samsung and Tesla are choosing to switch to cobalt batteries.
In the coming years, the reality of this demand will be seen more strongly. In any scenario, renewable energy is essential to keep the temperature at bay, otherwise, according to the 2022 IPCC report, parts of the planet will be uninhabitable by 2050. The bet, therefore, is also to increase the use of alternative fuels, such as hydrogen, or biomass, The United Nations Organization points out that they are less demanding of minerals.
This article by Andrea Cuéllar and Alejandra Fischer was originally published in ‘Diálogo Chino’ and is republished under a Creative Commons license.
Reference article: https://dialogochino.net/es/activities-extractives-en/53160-del-petroleo-a-los-minerales-la-nueva-dependencia-de-la-transicion-energetica/
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