Tag Archives: rare metals demand

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

Congo, China and Battery Minerals

The demand of cobalt is bound to increase because of the batteries needed to power  electric vehicles (EVs).  Each battery uses about 10kg of cobalt. It is widely known that more than half of the world’s cobalt reserves and production are in one dangerously unstable country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. What is less well known is that four-fifths of the cobalt sulphates and oxides used to make the all-important cathodes for lithium-ion batteries are refined in China. (Much of the other 20% is processed in Finland, but its raw material, too, comes from a mine in Congo, majority-owned by a Chinese firm, China Molybdenum.)

On March 14t, 2018 concerns about China’s grip on Congo’s cobalt production deepened when GEM, a Chinese battery maker, said it would acquire a third of the cobalt shipped by Glencore, the world’s biggest producer of the metal, between 2018 and 2020—equivalent to almost half of the world’s 110,000-tonne production in 2017. This is likely to add momentum to a rally that has pushed the price of cobalt up from an average of $26,500 a tonne in 2016 to above $90,000 a tonne

South Korean and Japanese tech firms and it’s a big concern of theirs that so much of the world’s cobalt sulphate comes from China. Memories are still fresh of a maritime squabble in 2010, during which China restricted exports of rare-earth metals vital to Japanese tech firms. China produces about 85% of the world’s rare earths.

Few analysts expect the cobalt market to soften soon. Production in Congo is likely to increase in the next few years, but some investment may be deterred by a recent five-fold leap in royalties on cobalt. Investment elsewhere is limited because cobalt is almost always mined alongside copper or nickel. Even at current prices, the quantities needed are not enough to justify production for cobalt alone.

But demand could explode if EVs surge in popularity… the use of cobalt for EVs could jump from 9,000 tonnes in 2017 to 107,000 tonnes in 2026.  The resulting higher prices would eventually unlock new sources of supply. But already non-Chinese battery manufacturers are looking for ways to protect themselves from potential shortages. Their best answer to date is nickel.

The materials most commonly used for cathodes in EV batteries are a combination of nickel, manganese and cobalt known as NMC, and one of nickel, cobalt and aluminium known as NCA. As cobalt has become pricier and scarcer, some battery makers have produced cobalt-lite cathodes by raising the nickel content—to as much as eight times the amount of cobalt. This allows the battery to run longer on a single charge, but makes it harder to manufacture and more prone to burst into flames. The trick is to get the balance right.

Strangely, nickel has not had anything like cobalt’s price rise. Nor do the Chinese appear to covet it… Nickel prices plummeted from $29,000 a tonne in 2011 to below $10,000 a tonne 2017…. But by 2025 McKinsey expects EV-related nickel demand to rise 16-fold to 550,000 tonnes.

In theory, the best way to ensure sufficient supplies of both nickel and cobalt would be for prices to rise enough to make mining them together more profitable. But that would mean more expensive batteries, and thus electric vehicles.

Excerpts from The Scramble for Battery Minerals, Economist, Mar. 24, 2018

The Hunger for Rare Metals

Indium, part of an iPhone’s screen, is an “invisible link…between the phone and your finger”. Just a pinch of niobium, a soft, granite-grey metal mined mostly in Brazil, greatly strengthens a tonne of steel used in bridges and pipelines. Lithium is so light that it has become essential for rechargeable car-batteries. Dysprosium, as well as making an electric toothbrush whirr, helps power wind turbines. Military technology depends on numerous rare metals. Tungsten, for instance, is crucial for armour-piercing bullets. America’s forthcoming F-35 fighter planes are “flying periodic tables”, Mr Abraham writes….[T]he “long tailpipe” of pollution left in the wake of mining and refining, rare metals..

Supplies are also a worry. In 2010 a Chinese trawler rammed Japanese coastguard vessels in waters near islands called the Senkakus in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese (their ownership is disputed by both countries). After the Chinese captain was detained, supplies of rare metals from the mainland to Japan suspiciously dried up. Though China never acknowledged an export ban, the incident caused rare-metal prices to spike, and unsettled manufacturers around the world. …

[The business of rare metals] generates $4 billion of revenues a year and also plays a critical role in systems worth about $4 trillion. China, which develops more rare metals than any other country, understands the calculus. The West, his book suggests, does not.

Excerpts from Rare metals: Unobtainiums, Economist, Jan. 16,  2016 (Book Review of ‘The Elements of Power by  D. Abraham]