Tag Archives: rare earth elements (REEs)

When Others Do our Dirty Work: the Costs of Overdependence

China is tightening its grip on the global supply of processed manganese, rattling a range of companies world-wide that depend on the versatile metal—including the planet’s biggest electric-vehicle makers.

China produces more than 90% of the world’s manganese products, ranging from steel-strengthening additives to battery-grade compounds. Since October 2020, dozens of Chinese manganese processors accounting for most of global capacity have joined a state-backed campaign to establish a “manganese innovation alliance,” led by Ningxia Tianyuan Manganese Industry Group, setting out in planning documents goals and moves that others in the industry say are akin to a production cartel. They include centralizing control over supply of key products, coordinating prices, stockpiling and networks for mutual financial assistance.

The squeeze sent prices soaring in metal markets world-wide, snagging steelmakers and sharpening concern among car makers. China’s metal industries already dominate the global processing of most raw materials for rechargeable batteries, including cobalt and nickel. Three-quarters of the world’s lithium-ion batteries and half of its electric vehicles are made in China.  High-purity forms of manganese have increasingly become crucial for battery-powered automobiles, touted by Volkswagen AG and Tesla Inc. in recent months as a viable replacement for other, more-expensive battery ingredients….

While manganese ore is relatively abundant around the world, it is almost solely refined in China. Battery-grade manganese is traded mostly privately, and pricing can be opaque. Miners say a metric ton of the purified metal could cost up to $4,000—barely a 10th of the cost of cobalt, a widely used battery metal. By replacing cobalt, manganese could help auto makers produce 30% more cars with the same amount of nickel, analysts say.

Rival manganese projects outside China view the cartel-like activities as an opportunity to gain momentum for their own battery-grade developments…Still, analysts say such projects outside China might take years to start and heavy cost investments to develop. Viable bases of manganese ore are often located in remote regions, which require expensive infrastructure to ferry and process extracted ores.

Excerpt from Chuin-Wei Yap, China Hones Control Over Manganese, a Rising Star in Battery Metals, WSH, May 21, 2021

The Geo-Economics of Rare Earth Minerals

Greenland is rich in rare-earth minerals, and the superpowers want them…These 17 elements are used in  all things electronic. The renewable-energy revolution will also rely on them for power storage and transmission. On the darker side, weapons—including nuclear ones—need them too.

A new open-pit mine at the top of Kuannersuit, a cloud-rimmed mountain near the settlement of Narsaq in the south of Greenland may be rich in rare earth. So believes Greenland Minerals, an Australia-based company, which has been angling for the excavation rights for the past decade.

Greenland’s environment ministry has given a tentative go-ahead. A majority of parliamentarians have already declared themselves in favor of digging. In early February 2020, the townsfolk of Narsaq will hear representations from the island’s government. In Greenland, Urani Naamik (“No to Uranium”), a community lobby, has strong support. Nobody wants (mildly) radioactive dust, an inevitable by-product of mining. Many worry about the waste—a sludge of chemicals and discarded rock fragments—that mining would leave on top of the mountain.

The bigger long-term issue is who gets the mine’s spoils. Shenghe, a Chinese conglomerate, is the largest shareholder in Greenland Minerals. The Danish government, in a frenzy of Atlanticism, earlier managed to stop Chinese companies from investing in the expansion of two airports on the island. Will it preserve Greenland’s rare earths for NATO?

Cloud mining: In search of Greenland’s rare earths, Economist, Jan. 16, 2021, at 41

Human and Environmental Costs of Low-Carbon Technologies

Substantial amounts of raw materials will be required to build new low-carbon energy devices and infrastructure.  Such materials include cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements (REEs)—needed for technologies such as solar photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicle (EV) motors, wind turbines, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors…  A majority of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country struggling to recover from years of armed conflict…Owing to a lack of preventative strategies and measures such as drilling with water and proper exhaust ventilation, many cobalt miners have extremely high levels of toxic metals in their body and are at risk of developing respiratory illness, heart disease, or cancer.

In addition, mining frequently results in severe environmental impacts and community dislocation. Moreover, metal production itself is energy intensive and difficult to decarbonize. Mining for copper,and mining for lithium has been criticized in Chile for depleting local groundwater resources across the Atacama Desert, destroying fragile ecosystems, and converting meadows and lagoons into salt flats. The extraction, crushing, refining, and processing of cadmium can pose risks such as groundwater or food contamination or worker exposure to hazardous chemicals. REE extraction in China has resulted  threatens rural groundwater aquifers as well as rivers and streams.

Although large-scale mining is often economically efficient, it has limited employment potential, only set to worsen with the recent arrival of fully automated mines. Even where there is relative political stability and stricter regulatory regimes in place, there can still be serious environmental failures, as exemplified by the recent global rise in dam failures at settling ponds for mine tailings. The level of distrust of extractive industries has even led to countrywide moratoria on all new mining projects, such as in El Salvador and the Philippines.

Traditional labor-intensive mechanisms of mining that involve less mechanization are called artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). Although ASM is not immune from poor governance or environmental harm, it provides livelihood potential for at least 40 million people worldwide…. It is also usually more strongly embedded in local and national economies than foreign-owned, large-scale mining, with a greater level of value retained and distributed within the country. Diversifying mineral supply chains to allow for greater coexistence of small- and large-scale operations is needed. Yet, efforts to incorporate artisanal miners into the formal economy have often resulted in a scarcity of permits awarded, exorbitant costs for miners to legalize their operations, and extremely lengthy and bureaucratic processes for registration….There needs to be a focus on policies that recognize ASM’s livelihood potential in areas of extreme poverty. The recent decision of the London Metals Exchange to have a policy of “nondiscrimination” toward ASM is a positive sign in this regard.

A great deal of attention has focused on fostering transparency and accountability of mineral mining by means of voluntary traceability or even “ethical minerals” schemes. International groups, including Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have all called on mining companies to ensure that supply chains are not sourced from mines that involve illegal labor and/or child labor.

Traceability schemes, however, may be impossible to fully enforce in practice and could, in the extreme, merely become an exercise in public relations rather than improved governance and outcomes for miners…. Paramount among these is an acknowledgment that traceability schemes offer a largely technical solution to profoundly political problems and that these political issues cannot be circumvented or ignored if meaningful solutions for workers are to be found. Traceability schemes ultimately will have value if the market and consumers trust their authenticity and there are few potential opportunities for leakage in the system…

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a framework that stipulates that producers are responsible for the entire lifespan of a product, including at the end of its usefulness. EPR would, in particular, shift responsibility for collecting the valuable resource streams and materials inside used electronics from users or waste managers to the companies that produce the devices. EPR holds producers responsible for their products at the end of their useful life and encourages durability, extended product lifetimes, and designs that are easy to reuse, repair, or recover materials from. A successful EPR program known as PV Cycle has been in place in Europe for photovoltaics for about a decade and has helped drive a new market in used photovoltaics that has seen 30,000 metric tons of material recycled.

Benjamin K. Sovacool et al., Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future, Science, Jan. 3, 2020