From oil to minerals: the new dependence of the energy transition

As renewable energy proliferates, so does the need for minerals. What are the environmental and social risks of this trial?

To keep the global temperature at acceptable levels, the world must go through an energy transition out of the era of fossil fuels. But the technologies that promote this change, such as solar energy, wind power or electric cars, require the extraction of a large quantity of minerals for their manufacture. An electric car, for example, requires six times more minerals than a conventional car; an onshore wind power plant requires nine times more minerals than a gas-fired power plant.

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 this cause on the environment and how can we mitigate them? These issues will take center stage on the world stage in the years to come. For now, what we know is this.

What are transition minerals and what are they used for?

The commitment to renewable energies mainly concerns copper, lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, graphite, copper, zinc and rare earths, among others. These elements are at the heart of electric cars, wind turbines and other energy sources, which promise to contain the rise in global temperature.

All technologies use minerals in different proportions, but electric vehicle batteries consume the most, particularly lithium, which is crucial for battery performance, longevity and energy density.

Lithium demand is expected to increase 40 times by 2040, followed by graphite, cobalt and nickel (which are expected to grow 20 to 25 times). Building electric vehicle charging networks also requires large amounts of copper, which are estimated to double over the same period. In 2021, copper demand from Chile, the world’s largest producer, has already increased by around 80% compared to the previous year, according to BBC Mundo.

In terms of power generation, wind power is the most demanding of minerals, especially when turbines are installed offshore, where they can require up to three times as much copper to transport energy along cables as offshore power plants. Onshore: In 2020, the volume of copper needed worldwide for offshore wind power generation was around 8,000 kg per megawatt of electricity generated, compared to 2,900 kg per megawatt for wind earthly. The construction also requires aluminum, zinc and rare earths.

The towers of wind turbines and transmitters are made of steel, zinc and aluminum and represent approximately 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 energy requires energy storage units, both in the form of individual batteries for private use and on large-scale electrical networks. 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 a 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 further: they most often use nickel, but various mixtures of cobalt, lithium and manganese are also common.

Environmental impact of mining

In the shadow of the promise of clean energy lie the negative impacts of obtaining and processing energy transition minerals. 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 mined, up to 2 million liters of water are needed, depleting groundwater resources. This affects communities, flora and fauna.

In Chile, for example, in the Salar de Atacama, one of the continent’s driest deserts — and most abundant in lithium — is a nature reserve for two native species of flamingos, whose sustenance depends on keeping them virtually intact. of the ecosystem. Due to lithium mining, populations have declined in recent years.

The social implications of the exploitation of transitional minerals also take a heavy toll in Latin America. Rebecca Ray, Zara C Albright and Kehan ​​Wang, development researchers at Boston University, suggested that countries in the lithium triangle (Argentina, Chile and Bolivia) develop institutional capacities to generate more responsible management of the ore. with greater participation of local communities, in order to reduce the negative impacts of exploitation.

Rare earths (or rare metals) are a key part of the transition, and we unknowingly interact with them in the palms of our hands every day. Smartphones, tablets and other touchscreen devices use them. They are appreciated 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.

The rare earths – neodymium, scandium and yttrium, to name but 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 under their pure form and tend to occur in low amounts. concentrations. Elisa Fabila, a chemical engineer from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), who specializes in the study of metallurgical chemistry, explains that the extraction process is complicated and invasive.

Separate the ore [de los otros compuestos] an ionic reaction is necessary and the residues of this reaction are what become so pollutingexplains Fabila.

The used water can no longer be reused because of 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 earth minerals critical to the energy transition also have detrimental extraction processes. Copper, for example, is mined by detonating explosives in cracks in the ground in surface mines. On average “300 square meters of soil are lost with each explosion“Explains Fabila, who is struggling to recover. All the properties of the earth vanish, since the explosion must decompose the components of the soil to remove the metals.

China is the star country for the extraction of rare metals. According to data from Statista, in 2021, the country represents 60% of the world’s production of rare earths. In recent years, China has limited its production and exports to other parts of the planet, and raised rare earths in a trade dispute with the United States. The largest of all its mines is in Baiyun Obo, Inner Mongolia, where, according to NASA, almost half of the world’s rare earth production is located.

It is estimated that the demand for rare earths could increase three to seven times by 2040, depending on advances in battery technology and electric turbines.

The problem of scarcity, geographical concentration and quality

As the world moves towards an energy landscape that requires more minerals, the question arises whether there will be enough resources to meet global demand. Several factors will influence this, and much of it will depend on developments in battery chemistry.

Going forward, according to the IEA report, a mixed scenario is expected: some minerals, such as hard rock lithium and cobalt, are likely to have a short-term surplus, while processed lithium, nickel grade battery and major rare earth elements (e.g. neodymium, dysprosium) may face limited supply in the coming years as they cannot meet demand.

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Other problems that could arise are related to the geographic concentration of minerals. China and the Republic of Congo concentrate more than 60% of cobalt production. The New York Times has extensively documented the ongoing battle for control of resources in this area. If there were to be problems with the supply chain in producing countries, it 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 are already running can do so for the lifetime of the battery, which can range from 10 to 20 years, and are unaffected by a lack of new mineral supplies.

Mineral Availability Solutions

Responding to the future scenario, IEA experts say it is necessary to take a series of measures to ensure the availability of minerals. On the one hand, it is essential to sensitize countries to invest in the development of mines and, on the other hand, it is crucial to develop more efficient technologies with the use of critical minerals. Instead of betting or betting everything 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 pressure on primary supply. Harald Gottsche, President and CEO of the BMW Group San Luis Potosí plant in Mexico, explained in an exclusive interview for Chinese dialogue how the company wants to reduce its impact along 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.“says 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 electric motors are built without using rare earthsadds Gottsche. Other big companies like Samsung and Tesla are choosing to switch to cobalt batteries.

In the years to come, the reality of this demand will be seen more strongly. In all scenarios, 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 is therefore also to increase the use of alternative fuels, such as as hydrogen, or biomass, reminds the United Nations that are less demanding in minerals.


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