A ‘clean energy’ revolution could unleash an unprecedented demand in minerals/metals in the coming decades, however, with sustainability close to the number-one topic alongside climate change, the mining industry faces more scrutiny than ever, and miners catering to clean energy and battery manufacturers are no exception (we introduced this topic in our June 2018 Spotlight: Lithium-ion Batteries).
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the projected increase in metal consumption through to 2050 is unlikely to be met by current production rates, with graphite, cobalt, vanadium and nickel showing more than two-thirds gap between supply and demand, and copper, lithium and platinum around a third. So, the race is on to find new sources of the minerals/metals needed for clean energy.
While consensus around the world is supportive of a clean energy revolution, a licence to mine and operate is not necessarily an easy process. In December 2021, Rio Tinto’s proposed lithium mine near Loznica in Serbia, faced protest from activist groups. Despite declarations the company would meet all domestic and EU environmental standards, activist groups believe the project will cause irreparable damage to the area. This knock-back was not only directed at Rio Tinto, but any company who tries to work there. In the US, a high-profile tussle is building at Nevada’s Thacker Pass, which is sacred land to the local Indigenous people. Residents raised their concerns about how the mine might harm wildlife and use precious water resources as the state is suffering through a historic drought.
Then there are the mining processes for these metals akin to ‘traditional’ techniques, which carry environmental concerns. For example, lithium is produced either through hard-rock mining or brine-water evaporation. Both, to varying degrees, are energy and water intensive and can contaminate groundwater, thereby endangering nearby inhabitants. However, innovative processes are being explored, with sustainability and carbon emission factors as a focus. One idea that has received media attention involves recycling the brine water and using an innovative absorbent to reject impurities, thereby reducing the need for extensive processing and waste creation. However, this concept is yet to be substantiated.
Despite the growing application of ‘clean technology’, the recycling capability for materials like lithium are not well-established. According to the ex-Chief Technology Officer at Tesla, it is cheaper to mine new materials, especially lithium, than recover them. The challenge comes from existing recycling facilities not being designed to extract the valuable minerals/metals needed. In addition to this, devices powered by lithium-ion batteries are often built-in and hard to dismantle. The recycling industry will need to convince battery manufacturers that recycled minerals/metals can deliver the same performance standards as those newly mined.
According to the IEA, the ability to recycle these minerals/metals from current circulation could ease supply limitations by around 10%. The IEA is advocating for policymakers to avoid the rapid growth of waste by incentivising recycling infrastructure: supporting the efficient collection, sorting activities, and funding research and development into improved recycling technologies. If we are to avoid the effect of coal, oil and gas manufacturing has had on climate change, sustainability policies and infrastructure must be in place to better support this clean energy revolution.