Lithium geologist makes case for mining
Argues for mining in the backyards of developed countries Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – February 5, 2020
Last updated 6/27/2020 at 5:14am
"I care deeply about the environment, which is why I work in the mining industry," is how Lucy Crane, opened a TEDx talk on mining's role in battling climate change.
A geologist who completed her undergraduate in earth sciences at Oxford and earned her Master's in Mining Geology at the Camborne School of Mines, Crane is all too familiar with the stigma mining has and the disconnect between clean energy and the mined materials that make that energy possible.
And she is tired of being considered a hypocrite for caring about the environment while exploring geothermal waters in Cornwall, England, for lithium, a key ingredient to power storage and a low-carbon future.
"How do we make these solar panels; how do we make these wind turbines, if not by extracting the raw materials that they are made up out of?" she queried the audience.
And it is going to take a lot of mined materials to build the world's renewable energy infrastructure.
"Your average three-megawatt wind turbine has just under five tons of copper wiring in it; two tons of rare earth elements; and is made up out of 1,200 tons of concrete," Crane pointed out.
While green energy and other modern applications are expected to be huge drivers of metals demand in the coming years, more basic economic and social developments add to and underly the growing global need for mined materials.
By 2030, roughly 59.7 percent of the global populace will live in urban regions, a roughly 4.8 percent increase from current levels.
The promise of economic prosperity is the major factor in this migration to metropolitan areas. Better income and the conveniences inherent to urban living equates to new homes, more consumer goods, expanded electrical grids and a lot more metals.
"Even the mobile phone in your pocket has, on average, two-thirds of the elements on the periodic table," Crane said. "Just think of the suite of mines they must have come from."
According to a 2019 forecast by World Bank, it is going to take roughly 550 million tons of copper to meet the planet's renewable energy and other needs over the next 25 years, which is about the same amount humankind has produced in the past 5,000 years.
And the World Bank estimates that by 2050 renewable energy and electric vehicles will drive annual demand for lithium up 965 percent, cobalt up 585 percent and graphite will increase 383 percent.
More information on World Bank forecasts on metals essential to renewable energies can be found at Climate smart mining offers opportunities in the Jan. 29 edition of Metal Tech News.
"This huge increase in demand for raw materials means that recycling the raw materials that are already in circulation simply cannot meet that demand," she said. "So, we need to think how we are sourcing these things responsibly and where they are actually coming from."
Crane contends that the mining and refining of these minerals and metals should take place closer to where they are needed.
"I read a stat the other day that the average electric car at the moment, the lithium in its batteries travels 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles) before the car has driven a single mile," she said.
This means lithium being shipped from mines in South America to China for processing, shipped again to a battery plant, shipped one more time to an electric vehicle facility and making yet another trip to be delivered to the EV buying customer, the lithium in the battery has made the equivalent of more than one trip around Earth.
"That is a hell of a carbon footprint and that is just for one of the elements in it," Crane said, referring to the lithium-ion batteries that power EVs.
Turning the tables on those who have a NIMBY (not in my backyard) view of mining, the geologist points out that it is more environmentally responsible to mine and refine raw materials in areas such as Europe, Canada, Australia and the U.S. – where environmental standards are higher.
"We have been outsourcing our problems to other parts of the world for decades," she said.
Encouraging mining in the backyards of developed countries would create higher environmental accountability, while also reducing the environmental footprint of shipping the materials to the customers that are using them.
"There is an increasing environmental argument to start localizing the production of the materials that we are actually consuming," according to Crane.
The Oxford educated geologist believes that this makes her work to understand and hopefully extract lithium from the geothermal waters under Cornwall an important project for England, Europe and the environmental health of the planet.
"Do you still think I'm a hypocrite?" Crane asked the audience at the end of her TEDx talk.