Critical minerals are vital for renewable energy. We must learn to mine them responsibly

Bénédicte Cenki-Tok, University of Sydney

As the world shifts away from fossil fuels, we will need to produce enormous numbers of wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles and batteries. Demand for the materials needed to build them will skyrocket.

This includes common industrial metals such as steel and copper, but also less familiar minerals such as the lithium used in rechargeable batteries and the rare earth elements used in the powerful magnets required by wind turbines and electric cars. Production of many of these critical minerals has grown enormously over the past decade with no sign of slowing down.

Australia is well placed to take advantage of this growth – some claim we are on the cusp of a rare earths boom – but unless we learn how to do it in a responsible manner, we will only create a new environmental crisis.

What are critical minerals?

Critical minerals” are metals and non-metals that are essential for our economic future but whose supply may be uncertain. Their supply may be threatened by geopolitics, geological accessibility, legislation, economic rules or other factors.

One consequence of a massive transition to renewables will be a drastic increase not only in the consumption of raw materials (including concrete, steel, aluminium, copper and glass) but also in the diversity of materials used.

Three centuries ago, the technologies used by humanity required half a dozen metals. Today we use more than 50, spanning almost the entire periodic table. However, like fossil fuels, minerals are finite.

Read more:
Metals and minerals will be the next finite resource shortfall

Can we ‘unlearn’ renewables to make them sustainable?

If we take a traditional approach to mining critical minerals, in a few decades they will run out – and we will face a new environmental crisis. At the same time, it is still unclear how we will secure supply of these minerals as demand surges.

This is further complicated by geopolitics. China is a major producer, accounting for more than 60% of rare earth elements, and significant amounts of tungsten, bismuth and germanium.

This makes other countries, including Australia, dependent on China, and also means the environmental pollution due to mining occurs in China.

The opportunity for Australia is to produce its own minerals, and to do so in a way that minimises environmental harm and is sustainable.

Where to mine?

Australia has well established resources in base metals (such as gold, iron, copper, zinc and lead) and presents an outstanding potential in critical minerals. Australia already produces almost half of lithium worldwide, for example.

Existing and potential sites for mining critical minerals.
Geoscience Australia

In recent years, Geoscience Australia and several universities have focused research on determining which critical minerals are associated with specific base ores.

For example, the critical minerals gallium and indium are commonly found as by-products in deposits of lead and zinc.

To work out the best places to look for critical minerals, we will need to understand the geological processes that create concentrations of them in the Earth’s crust.

Critical minerals are mostly located in magmatic rocks, which originate from the Earth’s mantle, and metamorphic rocks, which have been transformed during the formation of mountains. Understanding these rocks is key to finding critical minerals and recovering them from the bulk ores.

Magmatic rocks such as carbonatite may contain rare earth elements.
Bénédicte Cenki-Tok, Author provided

Fuelling the transition

For most western economies, rare earth elements are the most vital. These have electromagnetic properties that make them essential for permanent magnets, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converters, LCD screens and more. Australia shows a great potential in various deposit types across all states.

The Northern Territory is leading with the Nolans Bore mine already in early-stage operations. But many other minerals are vital to economies like ours.

Cobalt and lithium are essential to ion batteries. Gallium is used in photodetectors and photovoltaics systems. Indium is used for its conductive properties in screens.

Critical minerals mining is seen now as an unprecedented economic opportunity for exploration, extraction and exportation.

Recent agreements to secure supply to the US opens new avenues for the Australian mining industry.

How can we make it sustainable?

Beyond the economic opportunity, this is also an environmental one. Australia has the chance to set an example to the world of how to make the supply of critical minerals sustainable. The question is: are we willing to?

Many of the techniques for creating sustainable minerals supply still need to be invented. We must invest in geosciences, create new tools for exploration, extraction, beneficiation and recovery, treat the leftover material from mining as a resource instead of waste, develop urban mining and find substitutes and effective recycling procedures.

In short, we must develop an integrated approach to the circular economy of critical minerals. One potential example to follow here is the European EURARE project initiated a decade ago to secure a future supply of rare earth elements.

More than ever, we need to bridge the gap between disciplines and create new synergies to make a sustainable future. It is essential to act now for a better planet.The Conversation

Bénédicte Cenki-Tok, Associate professor at Montpellier University, EU H2020 MSCA visiting researcher, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Time for a global agreement on minerals to fuel the clean energy transition

Damien Giurco, University of Technology Sydney; Nicholas Arndt, Université Grenoble Alpes, and Saleem H. Ali, The University of Queensland

Representatives from around the world are meeting in Bonn this week to discuss progress towards the goals of the Paris climate agreement. A large part of this challenge involves rapidly scaling up the deployment of renewable energy, while curbing fossil fuel use – but little attention has been paid to the minerals that will be needed to build these technologies.

Wind and solar infrastructure, batteries and electric vehicles all require vast amounts of mined (and recycled) resources. These range from copper for wires and electric motors, to lithium and cobalt for batteries, to smaller amounts of rare metals like indium and gallium for solar cells.

Read more: Mining for metals in society’s waste

The problem is that the current system for mining these minerals is not always efficient; it’s polluting and is subject to increased social pressure and public protests. Instead, we need a new international mechanism to coordinate global mineral exploration that looks to our future supply needs.

As technology advances, more and different metals are needed.
Zepf V, Reller A, Rennie C, Ashfield M & Simmons J, BP (2014): Materials critical to the energy industry.

Challenges for minerals supply

While the Paris agreement has created a global framework for managing carbon, nothing similar exists for minerals. This leaves the pursuit of sustainable resource development largely in the hands of mining companies and state-owned enterprises.

Mining these resources generates significant water and air pollution. This problem is increasing: for example, global copper ore quality is declining over time. That means that copper mining now requires excavating twice as much ore as ten years ago to yield the same amount of copper, creating much more mine waste.

Read more: Treasure from trash: how mining waste can be mined a second time

Lower commodity prices have meant that investment in exploring new mine sites has fallen. But it takes a long time to develop new mines – it can often take 20 years to go from finding a metal deposit to beginning mining, and only around 20% of discoveries since 2000 have led to an operating mine.

Lack of investment in exploration is driven by short-term thinking, rather than a long-term plan to supply rising demand.

In parallel, resistance to mining, often at a local level, is increasing worldwide. Environmental catastrophes, of which there have been many examples, erode social trust, often delaying or stopping mine development.

A new global mechanism to more effectively plan resource supply could help rebuild trust in local communities, limit price spikes to ensure equitable access to metal resources, and balance the international tension which arises as industries and governments compete for minerals from a shrinking list of countries able to tolerate and profit from sustaining a mining industry.

A global agreement on mineral resources

Developing a global mechanism will of course be difficult, requiring substantive dialogue and strong leadership. But there are organisations that could step up, such as the United Nations Environment Assembly, or the newly established Intergovernmental Forum on Mining Metals and Sustainable Development.

The global community is well aware of the threat that rising sea levels pose to low-lying countries. We need similar awareness of the crucial role minerals are playing in the energy transition, and the risk that supply problems could derail sustainability goals.

To that end, we need to globally coordinate several crucial aspects of mineral development. To start with, while most detailed information on where minerals are mined and sold is privately held, there is publicly available data that could be used to predict possible imbalances in supply and demand internationally (for example copper, iron, lithium, indium). Publicly-funded institutions have an important role here. They can assess how known supply will meet future demand, and deliver insight into the changing environmental impact.

It should also be entirely possible to develop inventories of recyclable metals, which can be an important supplement to large mining operations.

Compiling inventories of recyclable metals is underway across Europe as part of a move towards a circular economy (where as much waste as possible is repurposed).

Read more: Explainer: what is the circular economy

While recycling for for metals like lithium for less than 1%, around 40% of steel demand is met from scrap recycled during manufacturing and from end-of-life products and infrastructure. Thinking smarter about eventual dismantling of buildings at the time when they are built, can support better use of recycled resources.

Geoscience agencies already offer maps of underground minerals, demonstrating that this kind of co-ordinated perspective is feasible. Extending this approach to recyclables can mitigate environmental impact and ease the social objections to new mines.

A global mechanism for mineral exploration and supply could also be an opportunity to promote best-practice for responsible mining, with a focus on social license and fair and transparent royalty arrangements.

Overcoming resistance

It’s a challenging proposition, especially as many countries display less enthusiasm for international agreements. However, it will be increasingly difficult to meet the Paris targets without tackling this problem.

In the decades ahead, our mineral supply will still need to double or triple to meet the demand for electric vehicles and other technologies required by our growing global population.

In short, resource efficiency and jobs of the future depend on an assured mineral supply. This should be a nonpartisan issue, across the global political spectrum.

The ConversationThe authors gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Edmund Nickless, Chair, New Activities Strategic Implementation Committee, International Union of Geological Sciences to this article.

Damien Giurco, Professor of Resource Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Nicholas Arndt, Professor of Geosciences, Université Grenoble Alpes, and Saleem H. Ali, Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment, University of Delaware (USA); Professorial Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.