“Critical minerals must accompany clean technologies”

Industries such as clean technology depend on these rare elements, for which global demand is growing rapidly. Argentina has the potential to produce them and must develop policies to find and exploit them in a sustainable way.

In the context of global warming, the objective is to use more and more sustainable energy sources. The technology needed to achieve the energy transition depends on elements called “critical minerals”, such as rare earths, lithium, niobium, tantalum and cobalt, among others; hence, its demand is accelerating year by year. The downside is that they are rare and few countries have deposits of these elements.

In this context, Argentina, with more than ten provinces with geological potential to extract these minerals, has the challenge of generating public policies to exploit these strategic resources. Are “clean” technologies and mining compatible?

Liliana Castro, doctor in geological sciences (UBA) and professor in charge of the subjects ‘Geological resources: genesis, uses and sustainable management’ and ‘Notions of geology and geomorphology’ of the Faculty of Agronomy of the UBA (FAUBA), said pointed out that “It is necessary to reduce the effect of greenhouse gases by reducing the use of fossil fuels and gradually integrating renewable energies. Critical minerals play an essential role in this transition”.


Critical minerals for the energy future

Renewable energies are natural resources that regenerate at a rate equal to or greater than what humans consume of them. In Argentina, in 2016, renewable energies represented 2% of the energy matrix, which is all the energy sources of a country. Today, they stand at almost 8%. As we can see, their incorporation has increased considerably, and it is expected that we will reach 20% in 2025explained Castro, who is also part of the Department of Geological Sciences-IGEBA, at UBA’s Faculty of Exact Sciences.

The researcher pointed out that in this transition to clean energy and in light of its rapid growth, critical minerals are essential for their broad industrial applications. “To build solar panels, batteries or wind turbines, we need aluminium, rare earths, copper and molybdenum, for example. In other words, we cannot ignore mining, as it will be essential to produce energy from alternative sources to hydrocarbons.”.

However, these minerals have a limited supply and cannot be easily replaced. Because of this, Liliana warned that there was a risk that her supply could be interrupted. “Many industries and other national security issues depend on critical minerals. This gives them a strategic character, so that their absence would have serious economic or security consequences.”.

Some of these industries are those of materials such as glass and ceramics, medical, metallurgical and technological, among many others. “For example, to meet demand for energy storage technologies, production of elements such as graphite, lithium and cobalt – needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – will need to increase by more than 450 % by 2050, using 2018 levels as a baseline”.

On the other hand, if we compare the production of aluminum and copper of respectively 65 and 25 million tons in 2020, these elements are expected to increase due to future demand to 130 and 290 million tons by 2050, a detailed Liliana Castro.

Rare earths are minerals used in a wide variety of industries, from medicine to technology and transportation. Photo: World Energy Trade

The exploitation of critical minerals for clean technologies

Today, our country only produces lithium, beyond traditional elements such as gold, silver and copper. Therefore, we should focus on finding new critical minerals”. Its repertoire is wide: around 5,000 minerals are known in the world, of which 500 have a critical value. “We must first know what we have and where they are, and then assess their extraction from a social, economic and environmental perspective. These three perspectives must be met for a deposit to become a deposit.

According to LilianTo search for critical minerals, we must have state policies that incorporate institutions such as universities and the Geological Survey. And to find out if you can achieve a deposit, you need to work with companies that provide the necessary capital”.

These policies are necessary in a world where the demand for renewable energy is growing. For Castro,the production of critical minerals must accompany this demand. Therefore, the search for critical minerals must be permanent”.

About recycling materials

Monazite, one of the main minerals from which rare earths are extracted. Photo: L. Castro

Moreover, recycling is not enough to cover the demand. Some minerals cannot be fully recycled; in some cases, up to 50% of the material is lost. Others are impossible to recycle, such as pigments or fertilizers, which are used in a dispersed way. And others, like iron and copper, tend to corrode and lose quality.“, he pointed.

On the other hand, not only the search for critical minerals determines their possibilities of use, but also technological advances. “There are materials that years ago were very important, but now others have replaced them. For example, platinum has been used for hip replacements; Today, titanium and even ceramic are used. Technology is advancing and allowing us to improve processes and meet our needs”.

Finally, Liliana Castro stressed that it is essential that the exploitation of critical minerals is done in an interdisciplinary way. “We work in many disciplines of this sector, from geology and engineering to economics, chemistry and sociology. And, above all, I always talk to my students about the importance of environmental sciences, because their role begins in the first part of the process, which is research and exploration, until the closure of the mine and the post-closure control. It is essential to do this activity in a reasonable, responsible and sustainable way”.


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