Minerals and metals – another barrier to energy development

Minerals and metals – another barrier to energy development

Energy is essential for driving economic growth. Producing energy from fossil fuels has always been accompanied by fear about the size of mineral resources. This fear was a force compelling people to search for solutions that would help overcome this barrier to growth. Renewable energy sources and nuclear energy seemed to promise the best results, and parallel investments were made to improve energy efficiency. Paradoxically, innovative technologies that proved to be the real game changer,  helped to markedly increase the recoverable reserves of natural gas and crude oil by reaching directly to the source rocks (fracking). The potential of the fracking technology, to which we owe the spectacular plunge in oil and gas prices, was revealed at a time when another barrier – in the form of excessive carbon dioxide and methane emissions – was already on the horizon. The shift to driving growth with low-carbon technologies gave back importance to renewable energy sources, particularly the inexhaustible ones, such as wind and solar energy. These two sources accounted for more than half of new generation capacity added over recent years. According to McKinsey, wind and solar are expected to increase by a factor of 13 and 60, respectively, from 2015 to 2050.

It may seem that since we have low-carbon technologies that draw energy directly from inexhaustible sources, the barrier to green energy will be overcome once and for all through their further development. However, this is not true because in addition to the inexhaustible energy sources we use other natural resources in the development process. The speed at which we use air, water, minerals and rare earth elements has become a real economic challenge. The consumption of metals over the past century has been growing astonishingly fast. People are now using six times more iron per person than they did a hundred years ago, which requires a 26-fold increase in iron ore extraction. Critical metals such as lithium, copper, uranium, gold and rare earths are used in the production of modern electronics, from smartphones and batteries to advanced weapon systems. Rare metals are also particularly important for renewable energy technologies, such as solar panels and electric cars. For example, solar panels need tellurium, one of the rarest elements on Earth, and a Tesla car requires about 7 kg of lithium (the weight of a bowling ball). The growing demand for energy from inexhaustible sources creates another barrier, which is access to critical minerals and rare earth elements. However, researchers point out that technology has changed the way resources are used. Building such huge structures as the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge required large amounts of metal, such as iron and steel. Today, a modern smartphone uses most of the elements from the periodic table, but modern electronics requires very small amounts of critical elements and there is no risk that the elements will be used up in full. There is, however, a risk of disruption to the supply chain.

In December 2018, Stanford University hosted an interesting conference on the rise of the importance of minerals in economic security. In addition to scientists, industry and government agency experts spoke out on this subject. In their view, the risk of supply chain disruptions is strongly increasing and the disruptions can take various forms, including economic and political ones. Critical and rare minerals are often by-products of much greater mineral operations, such as copper mining, so if the price of copper falls, the production of these critical elements will also be jeopardized. It is also important that the production of many important elements is concentrated in just a few countries, particularly in China, which extracts 93% of the world’s rare earth minerals. If ports in China were destroyed by natural disasters such as the tsunami, this would give rise to serious consequences for global trade in these elements and, consequently, for leading economies. This is why in countries such as the United States the importance of mapping the presence of minerals using state-of-the-art geophysical imaging tools, such as LIDAR and hyperspectral imaging, is growing. Work on this process should start quickly, because it may take as much as 12 years for newly discovered mineral reserves to be developed into production.

The participants of the Stanford University conference pointed out that three types of innovation can help reduce the risk of disruption in the supply chain:

  • the innovation increasing mining output. Scientists have shown that layers of clay in large supervolcano craters around the world (formed by huge eruptions leading to the downward collapse of the volcanic cone) contain large lithium deposits. Lithium is currently produced mainly in Chile and Australia from sources other than clay. If a technology for cheap separation of lithium from clay is developed, it will diversify the global supply of lithium, thus significantly changing the lithium market in the future,
  • the innovation reducing waste. Technological innovation can also contribute to reducing critical mineral waste at the production stage. For example, about half of the neodymium used in magnetic materials ends up on the factory floor because this is how magnets are made,
  • the innovation reducing consumption. Scientists and engineers are exploring ways to further minimise the amount of critical and rare minerals needed for electronics.

It should be stressed that the US administration are not sitting on their hands and waiting to see how things develop, but are also taking steps to deal with the problem. At the end of December 2017, Donald Trump, President of the United States, issued the Executive Order "A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals". Section 3 (Policy) of the Order reads: „It shall be the policy of the Federal Government to reduce the Nation’s vulnerability to disruptions in the supply of critical minerals, which constitutes a strategic vulnerability for the security and prosperity of the United States. The United States will further this policy [...] by: (a) identifying new sources of critical minerals; (b) increasing activity at all levels of the supply chain, including exploration, mining, concentration, separation, alloying, recycling, and reprocessing critical minerals; (c) ensuring that our miners and producers have electronic access to the most advanced topographic, geologic, and geophysical data within U.S. territory [...] (d) streamlining leasing and permitting processes to expedite exploration, production, processing, reprocessing, recycling, and domestic refining of critical minerals”. Following this Order, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) developed and published in May 2018 a list of 35 minerals deemed critical to U.S. national security and the economy.

The full list of the most important minerals includes the following elements: click on the name of the mineral to find relevant statistics and publications:

  • Aluminum (bauxite), used in almost all sectors of the economy
  • Antimony, used in batteries and flame retardants
  • Arsenic, used in lumber preservatives, pesticides, and semi-conductors
  • Barite, used in cement and petroleum industries
  • Beryllium, used as an alloying agent in aerospace and defense industries
  • Bismuth, used in medical and atomic research
  • Cesium, used in research and development
  • Chromium, used primarily in stainless steel and other alloys
  • Cobalt, used in rechargeable batteries and superalloys
  • Fluorspar, used in the manufacture of aluminum, gasoline, and uranium fuel
  • Gallium, used for integrated circuits and optical devices like LEDs
  • Germanium, used for fiber optics and night vision applications
  • Graphite (natural), used for lubricants, batteries, and fuel cells
  • Hafnium, used for nuclear control rods, alloys, and high-temperature ceramics
  • Helium, used for MRIs, lifting agent, and research
  • Indium, mostly used in LCD screens
  • Lithium, used primarily for batteries
  • Magnesium, used in furnace linings for manufacturing steel and ceramics
  • Manganese, used in steelmaking
  • Niobium, used mostly in steel alloys
  • Platinum group metals, used for catalytic agents
  • Potash, primarily used as a fertilizer
  • Rare earth elements group, primarily used in batteries and electronics
  • Rhenium, used for lead-free gasoline and superalloys
  • Rubidium, used for research and development in electronics
  • Scandium, used for alloys and fuel cells
  • Strontium, used for pyrotechnics and ceramic magnets
  • Tantalum, used in electronic components, mostly capacitors
  • Tellurium, used in steelmaking and solar cells
  • Tin, used as protective coatings and alloys for steel
  • Titanium, overwhelmingly used as a white pigment or metal alloys
  • Tungsten, primarily used to make wear-resistant metals
  • Uranium, mostly used for nuclear fuel
  • Vanadium, primarily used for titanium alloys
  • Zirconium, used in the high-temperature ceramics industries

The participants of the Stanford University conference believe that the U.S. government should launch a programme supporting innovative technologies for the extraction of these minerals that would be similar to the one that led to the United States becoming independent of gas and oil imports. It is worthwhile to follow further developments and learn our lesson for Poland.