Scientists urge green energy metal policies
Study shows need to look at ocean, space for new supplies Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – January 8, 2020
Last updated 6/27/2020 at 4:57am
Scientists are urging world governments to get out in front of the skyrocketing demand for the minerals and metals that are going to be needed for solar, wind and other green energy initiatives in the coming years – whether they come from terrestrial or extraterrestrial sources.
According to a research report from the University of Sussex, the amount of cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium and rare earth elements needed for solar panels, wind turbines, rechargeable batteries, electric vehicles (EV), fuel cells and nuclear reactors is expected to grow exponentially over the next four decades.
The number of light duty electric cars and trucks traveling global highways is expected to expand by more than 80,000 percent, from 1.2 million in 2015 to more than 965 million passenger EVs by 2060. Over that same span, the amount of battery storage needed worldwide is expected rise even sharper, from 55 gigawatt-hours (GWh) to 12,380 GWh.
An international team of researchers from Sussex and other universities are concerned that single country monopolies, coupled with potential social and environmental conflict, could create a shortage of the metals needed for a rapid upscaling of low-carbon technologies.
"Mining, metals, and materials extraction is the hidden foundation of the low-carbon transition," said University of Sussex Professor of Energy Policy Benjamin Sovacool.
Sovacool and his colleagues understand that mining by its industrial nature has its challenges and suggest that a framework should be put in place to ensure the greatest social good come from the expanded need for green energy metals.
"The impacts to mining rightfully alarm many environmental campaigners as a large price to pay to safeguard a low-carbon future. But as the extraction through terrestrial mining becomes more challenging, the on-land reserves of some terrestrial minerals dwindle or the social resistance in some countries escalates, even oceanic or even space based mineral reserves will become a plausible source," said Sovacool.
EVs drive demand
The batteries and motors in EVs will put new demands on metals that are either not needed or used very little in their internal combustion counterparts.
There are four primary ingredients inside the lithium-ion batteries that power most of today's EVs – graphite, lithium, cobalt and nickel.
According to a recent study, the rapid adoption of battery-powered passenger vehicles between 2015 and 2060 is forecast to drive a commensurate 87,000 percent increase in the demand for the materials inside the battery.
Over the same span, battery storage for renewable energy is expected to rise even sharper, with capacity needs forecast to rocket from 0.5 gigawatt-hour (GWh) in 2015 to 12,380 GWh in 2060. Currently, the bulk of this battery storage capacity is being supplied by lithium-ion batteries very similar to that used for EVs. Other large battery technology utilizing vanadium, antimony and other materials is currently being researched.
Adding to the demand for minerals and metals, the rapid rise of installed solar photovoltaic (the use of solar cells to generate electricity) capacity must rise from 223 gigawatts (GW) to more than 7100 GW in order to meet international goals for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.
Nine metals and minerals – beryllium, cadmium, gallium, germanium, indium, molybdenum, silicon, silver and tellurium – go into solar panels themselves. Another five – aluminum, copper, magnesium, titanium and zinc – are needed for the frames and wiring to install these photovoltaic panels.
The swiftly increasing need of these minerals and metals, many of which are rare, has global academics concerned about the geopolitical, social, environmental and other risks expected to arise as the world adjusts to these new demands.
The international scientists that carried out the "Sustainable supply of minerals and metals key to a low-carbon energy future" study said that as terrestrial sources of these minerals and metals needed for sustainable energy get harder to come by, we will need to look under the ocean and potentially to space for new deposits of these materials.
The researchers point to marine deposit on continental shelves, both in countries' exclusive economic zones as well as further out in internationals waters, as important prospects for cobalt and nickel.
Out in deeper international waters, metallic nodules found in the Pacific Ocean, as well as in cobalt and tellurium crusts, found in seamounts worldwide, provide some of the richest deposits of metals for green technologies.
The authors of the study, however, said minerals in more pristine and distinctive ecosystems near hydrothermal vents, which spew out metal-rich fluids, should remain off-limits for mineral extraction for the foreseeable future.
"As the global energy landscape changes, it is becoming more mineral and metal intensive. Thus, the sustainability and security of material supply chains is essential to supporting the energy transition. How we shape that pathway will have important consequences for everything from the environment, to development, and geopolitics," said Morgan Bazilian, professor and director, Payne Institute for Public Policy, Colorado School of Mines.
In order to stay out ahead of the challenges of supplying the minerals and metals expected to be needed for green energy, the authors of the study recommend:
• Enhance and coordinate international agreements on responsible mining and traceability in order to establish mineral supply justice.
• Greatly expand the recycling and reuse of rare minerals to extend the lifetimes of products and stretch out reserves.
• Diversify mineral supply scale to incorporate both small and large-scale operations while allowing miners to have control over mineral revenue through stronger benefit sharing mechanisms and access to markets.
• Focus development donor policies to recognize the livelihood potential of mining in areas of extreme poverty rather than just regulating the sector for tax revenues.
• Stipulate stronger responsibility for companies that manufacture products that use valuable rare minerals. This can ensure that responsibility for the entire lifespan of a product including at the end of its usefulness shifts from users or waste managers to major producers such as Apple, Samsung, and Toshiba.
• Materials security of essential minerals and metals to be actively incorporated into formal climate planning including establishing a list of "critical minerals" for energy security – which is already done to some degree by the European Union and United States.
"Our analysis is aimed at galvanizing international policy-makers to include mineral supply concerns for green technologies in climate change negotiations," said Saleem Ali, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware. "We need to build on the resolution on mineral governance passed at the United Nations Environment Assembly in 2019 and operationalize a clear action plan on supply chain security for a low-carbon transition."