We live in an age of mass consumption, fuelled by increasing production. We now have an ever-growing ‘anthroposphere’ – a term that encompasses everything that humans have created from raw materials, and how they subsequently interact with the planet.
Such demand obviously puts significant strain on natural resources, but nowhere is this issue more profound than with the critical minerals which underpin the energy transition. Let’s take a closer look at these critical minerals, the energy transition and potential solutions to this rising demand!
Critical Minerals and The Energy Transition
This increasing demand for raw materials, particularly ‘critical minerals’, is reflected in the energy transition. Critical minerals include copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements, named so because they hold significant economic influence over strategically important sectors, including clean energy technologies. A recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) explores the role of critical minerals in the energy transition. It highlights the key part these minerals must play, given that renewable energy technologies require far more minerals to build than fossil-fuel technologies.
The report highlights that as more and more renewables come onto the system, the average amount of minerals required for a new unit of power generation has increased by 50%, as seen in the graph below.
How are they used in renewable energy technologies?
Different technologies require different minerals, but broadly the IEA highlights that:
- Lithium, Nickel, Cobalt, Manganese and Graphite are all critical for battery technologies.
- Rare earth elements, such as neodymium and dysprosium, are vital in the creation of magnets that underpin the functioning of wind turbines and electric vehicle motors.
- Solar Panels require large quantities of silicon and copper.
- Copper and aluminium are also essential for the expansion of electricity networks to accommodate more renewables.
How much is demand expected to grow?
The increase in demand for these critical minerals is obviously dependent on how many renewables we bring onto the system, which in itself is dependent on policy support, investment and grid constraints. The IEA highlight that if there were to be a concerted effort to meet the Paris Agreement – which is keeping temperatures well below a 2° rise, this would mean “a quadrupling of mineral requirements for clean energy technologies by 2040”.
The need for greater circularity
This increase in demand for critical minerals to support the energy transition will put significant pressure on sources of these minerals, and how we extract them from the earth through mining – so how can we alleviate this? One way is through greater ‘circularity’.
What is circularity and why do we need it?
Circularity, or the circular economy, can be defined as:
“a system which aims to get the most out of materials, keep products and materials in use and design them to be cycled back into the economy and eliminate waste”Deloitte
The first case for greater circularity of critical minerals is that the mining and processing practices associated with extracting these materials are at the detriment of the natural environment. This is both from the destruction of natural habitats to create the mine, but also the pollution of soils and groundwater from leached chemicals. The reliance on mining for new sources of critical minerals to fuel the energy transition is therefore ironically at odds with stricter environmental regulation.
Beyond the environmental impacts associated with mining, it is also frequently associated with negative social impacts. This is both from the health impacts of the pollution, but also the race for greater extraction is related to frequent abuses of human rights for those involved in the mining. We considered these particular impacts on indigenous populations in a recent article, check it out.
One such example is the mining of Cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which produces more than 70% of the world’s supply. In which, there are frequent reports that have emerged of child labour, fatal accidents and violent clashes between mining groups. This closely relates to an article we have already done, which looks more closely at the injustices associated with oil extraction in the DRC – be sure to have a look.
In addition to the negative effects associated with mining, there is a huge case for circularity in that simply put, these are finite resources which will, one day, be exhausted. One article highlights that without measures being taken, “the rapidly growing demand for magnet rare earths […] might exceed their supplies in the next two decades”.
Finally, such reliance on these critical minerals, which are only found and processed in specific geographic locations, presents significant supply chain vulnerabilities. We only need to look at COVID-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine to understand just how susceptible our supply chains can be to external shocks. The critical mineral supply chain vulnerability is evident in the fact that the EU only supplies 1% of raw materials used in renewable energy technologies, presenting a significant exposure to external influences. Implementing greater circularity of critical minerals that are already in use therefore reduces this exposure and increases energy security – a critical issue.
It’s clear that there are many adverse reasons to rely solely upon extraction as a source of critical minerals, and this is where we can look to methods of circularity to keep critical minerals in use.
The Urban Mine
So, what might greater circularity look like with critical minerals? Enter the Urban Mine! The Urban Mine looks to products that already exist in the anthroposphere “as a potential source of raw material supply, whether these are products in use, waste, or landfilled materials”. A report undertaken into the potential of the Urban Mine highlights that in looking at what we have already created, and recycling/repurposing it, when used at scale, Urban Mining keeps minerals in use for longer, decreasing our reliance on traditional mining.
Most everyday technologies, such as our smartphones, contain these critical minerals and go on to become electronic waste (e-waste). The sheer scale of the opportunity the Urban Mine presents is highlighted by statistics that show that in 2021 alone, 54.4 Million Metric Tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was generated globally, and there are estimates that there exists over 347Mt of un-recycled e-waste on earth in 2023. These statistics do not even consider the critical minerals that are still in use too!
Sounds simple enough, or is it?
Having said this, the potential for Urban Mining encounters some difficulties. The recovery of existing material from general landfill is an enormous challenge owing to the sheer labour and economic investment required to actually find goods which contain these critical minerals. The scale of the challenge is so great, that the Urban Mining report outlines that the incredibly low profitability means this form of retrospective Urban Mining is unlikely to take off as it stands.
One way to rectify this to enable Urban Mining going forwards, is the implementation of better waste separation to allow recycling. Effective separation of waste streams at the time of disposal enables the specialised recycling processes associated with critical mineral recycling to occur, at larger, profitable scales. This allows viable reuse of these minerals.
These specialised recycling processes highlight another shortfall to the Urban Mine concept. While some processes exist, they are limited by a few factors. The first is geographic – the specialised plants currently only exist in a few locations. The Urban Mining report highlights that the capacity for recycling rare earth magnets exists almost exclusively in China. Meanwhile, America does not have any secondary copper smelters, so any copper scrap must be shipped to Europe or China to be recovered.
The second is the relative lack of technical knowledge in the know-how of effective recycling processes for some critical minerals. Governments should now use policies to promote investment in research and development for e-waste recycling technologies to address this.
So, could it work?
It is clear that the Urban Mining concept has some shortfalls. Going forward, if we were to implement effective waste separation, we open the opportunity for a potentially large pool of critical minerals to be recycled, both now and in the future when possible.
It is important to note, however, that the IEA outline that recycling would not be able to displace the need for mining. This is due to the sheer scale of critical minerals required for the renewable energy transition. There is therefore also a need for better regulation to ensure the problems associated with mining are mitigated. They do however estimate that by 2040, recycled quantities of copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt from spent batteries alone could reduce the need for these raw materials by around 10%. This figure could also be significantly higher in regions that have widespread renewable energy technologies given the greater economy of scale.
As the first batch of widespread renewable technologies that were deployed approach the end of their life cycle, we are now at a critical juncture and must seek to both utilise and facilitate the Urban Mine going forwards in the name of the energy transition, security, sustainability, and circularity.
- Have a look at the full IEA report and the Urban Mining report to find out more about the energy transition, critical minerals and Urban Mining.
- Watch this short video to learn more about the circular economy.
- Have a listen to the Podcast ‘The Scramble for Rare Earths’ by Misha Glenny, a really informative background to critical minerals and rare earths and the hidden widespread uses they have.