Tag Archives: rare metals supply

Economic Consequences of Falling Asleep on Wheel: the Geopolitics of Energy Transition

American officials see Africa as helping to solve two problems. The first is a global shortfall in the minerals that will be needed if the world is to meet its climate goals.The second problem, at least for the West, is China’s outsized influence on supply chains. China refines 68% of the world’s nickel, 40% of copper, 59% of lithium and 73% of cobalt, according to a report in July by the Brookings Institution, an American think-tank. “China has had free rein for 15 years while the rest of the world was sleeping,” says Brian Menell, chief executive of TechMet, a minerals firm.

America views cobalt, which is used in batteries, as a cautionary tale. In Congo, the source of about 70% of global production, Chinese entities owned or had stakes in 15 of 19 cobalt-producing mines as of 2020. America’s decision to allow a US firm to sell one of Congo’s largest copper-cobalt mines to a Chinese one in 2020 is seen in Washington as an enormous act of stupidity. It is little comfort that battery-makers are trying to use less cobalt, in part because of concerns about operating in Congo. “We cannot allow China to become an OPEC of one in critical minerals,” says an American official, referring to the oil cartel.

It is possible to identify three strands in America’s approach. The first is a multilateral effort involving Western allies. In June, Jose Fernandez, America’s under-secretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, launched the Minerals Security Partnership, whose 13 members include all the G-7 countries and the EU. Many of these countries are also looking to secure more scarce rocks. Britain launched a “critical minerals strategy” in July 2022 and later this month the European Commission will propose a Critical Raw Materials Act.

A second strand in America’s approach involves its development agencies “de-risking” projects as they have done in, say, agriculture or the power sector. As well as the us Export-Import Bank, which offers trade-financing, there is the International Development Finance Corporation (DFC)... Another potential success is a memorandum of understanding signed by America, Congo and Zambia in January. America says it will help Africa’s two largest copper exporters do more than just sell the metal in its elemental state. Under it, America agreed to help the two African countries build supply chains to process their raw minerals into battery precursors for electric vehicles.

Excerpts from How America plans to break China’s grip on African minerals, Economist,  Mar. 4, 2023

Mining the Earth to Save it

The rush to secure green-energy metals is bringing new life to one of the world’s oldest mining hubs. Like the United States, Europe is worried that it is too reliant on China for supplies of once-obscure natural resources, such as lithium and rare-earth metals, that are seen as climate-friendly successors to oil and gas…. 

On both sides of the Atlantic, one of the best answers to long-simmering worries about green-energy security is to look north…, for example, to the “Canadian Shield,” a vast band of rock encircling Hudson Bay. The “Baltic Shield” that stretches across Scandinavia to western Russia is similarly mineral-rich. It helps explain why Sweden in particular has such a long mining heritage. In the mid-17th century, the country’s “Great Copper Mountain” near Falun provided two-thirds of the world’s copper. Even today, 80% of iron ore mined in the EU comes from a site near the Arctic town of Kiruna that Swedish state operator LKAB has exploited for well over a century.

The energy transition is an opportunity for Sweden’s mining complex. LKAB said in January 2023 that it had identified Europe’s largest body of rare-earth metals close to its existing Kiruna operation…Digging up the planet to save it is an awkward pitch. The only way for miners to counter accusations that they are adding to the problem they want to solve is by decarbonizing operations. Here Sweden is again helped by the geology of the Baltic Shield, whose river valleys are favorable for green-energy production. Roughly 45% of the country’s electricity comes from hydroelectric power, with much of the remainder provided by nuclear and wind. It is also cheap, particularly in the Arctic, where many mines are located. Against a favorable geopolitical backdrop, the biggest risk for investors is political. Mines, which can bring a lot of noise and relatively few jobs to an area, don’t tend to be popular locally.

There is a reason the West relies on autocracies for a lot of its oil.

Excerpts from Stephen Wilmot, For Mining EV Metals, the Arctic Is Hot, WSJ, Feb. 14, 2023

After the Oil Shock, the Metals Shock: fueling the green economy

Indonesia banned exports of nickel ore in 2020 in a bid to capture more of the metal’s value. As a result, exports of Indonesian nickel products were worth $30bn in 2022, more than ten times what they were in 2013. Nickel smelters have sprouted around the country, and makers of batteries, in which the metal is a key component, are building factories. On January 17, 2023 a cabinet official said the government was close to sealing deals with the world’s two largest makers of electric vehicles (EVS), Tesla and BYD, to build cars in Indonesia. Flushed with progress, the government is now thinking beyond nickel.

“This success will be continued for other commodities,” said Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, in December 2022. He confirmed that an export ban on bauxite, the ore used to make aluminum, was coming in June 2023. The bauxite industry is scrambling to prepare itself for the shock….The government has suggested that a ban on copper exports could be implemented next, with bans on tin and gold exports to follow.

The country’s pulling power in the global nickel market will be hard to replicate, though. Indonesia produces 37% of the world’s nickel. But its bauxite, gold and copper production is less than 5% of the global total…Bauxite smelters are also expensive and harder to build than nickel smelters. Local firms are struggling to raise the capital needed for them, often around 18trn rupiah ($1.2bn)…All the eight bauxite smelters are under construction are Chinese investments. . 

Indonesia’s resource nationalism also risks falling foul of global trade rules but Jokowi, Indonesia’s president  remains  undeterred. “This is what we want to do: be independent, independent, independent,” he said.

Excerpts from Indonesia’s Industrial Policy: Full Metal Jacket, Economist,  Jan. 28, 2023

The Sacrificial Lambs of Green Energy

Lithium Americas, a Canadian company, has plans to build a mine and processing plant at Thacker Pass, near the southern tip of the caldera in Nevada. It would be America’s biggest lithium mine. Ranchers and farmers in nearby Orovada, a town of about 120 people, worry that the mine will threaten their water supply and air quality. Native American tribes in the region say they were not properly consulted before the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a federal agency that manages America’s vast public lands, decided to permit the project. Tribes also allege that a massacre of their ancestors took place at Thacker Pass in 1865…

The fight over Thacker Pass is not surprising. President Joe Biden wants half of all cars sold in 2030 to be electric, and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. These ambitious climate targets mean that battles over where and how to mine are coming to mineral-rich communities around the country. America is in need of cobalt, copper and lithium, among other things, which are used in batteries and other clean-energy technologies. As with past commodity booms, large deposits of many of these materials are found in America’s western states . America, of course, is not the only country racing to secure access to such materials. As countries pledge to go carbon-free, global demand for critical minerals is set to soar. The International Energy Agency, a forecaster, estimates that by 2040 demand for lithium could increase by more than 40 times relative to 2020. Demand for cobalt and nickel could grow by about 20 times in the same period.

Beyond its green goals, America is also intent on diversifying mineral supplies away from China and Russia (big producer of nickel), which—by virtue of its natural bounty and muscular industrial policy—has become a raw-materials juggernaut… The green transition has also turned the pursuit of critical minerals into a great-power competition not unlike the search for gold or oil in eras past. Mining for lithium, the Department of Energy (DOE) says, is not only a means of fighting climate change but also a matter of national security.

Westerners have seen all this before, and are wary of new mines…The economic history of the American West is a story of boom and bust. When a commodity bubble burst, boomtowns were abandoned. The legacy of those busts still plagues the region. In 2020 the Government Accountability Office estimated that there could be at least 530,000 abandoned hardrock-mine features, such as tunnels or waste piles, on federal lands. At least 89,000 of those could pose a safety or environmental hazard. Most of America’s abandoned hardrock mines are in 13 states west of the Mississippi River…

Is it possible to secure critical minerals while avoiding the mistakes of previous booms? America’s debates over how to use its public lands, and to whom those lands belong, are notoriously unruly. Conservationists, energy companies, ranchers and tribal nations all feel some sense of ownership. Total harmony is unlikely. But there are ways to lessen the animosity.

Start with environmental concerns. Mining is a dirty business, but development and conservation can coexist. In 2020 Stanford University helped broker a national agreement between the hydropower industry and conservation groups to increase safety and efficiency at existing dams while removing dams that are harming the environment….Many worry that permitting new development on land sacred to tribes will be yet another example of America’s exploitation of indigenous peoples in pursuit of land and natural resources. msci, a consultancy, reckons that 97% of America’s nickel reserves, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt are found within 35 miles of Native American reservations.

TThe BLM is supposed to consult tribes about policies that may affect the tribes but the  consultation process is broken. Often it consists of sending tribes a letter notifying them of a mining or drilling proposal.

Lithium Americas has offered to build the town a new school, one that will be farther away from a road that the firm will use to transport sulphur. Sitting in her truck outside a petrol station that doubles as Orovada’s local watering hole, Ms Amato recalled one group member’s response to the offer: “If all I’m going to get is a kick in the ass, because we’re getting the mine regardless, then I may as well get a kick in the ass and a brand new school.”

Excerpt from America’s Next Mining Boom: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Economist, Feb. 19, 2022

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

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

Who Bears the Costs of Technology? Lynas and Hazardous Waste from Rare Earths

Companies and governments around the world are anxiously watching the fate of a sprawling industrial facility 30 kilometers north of this city on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.The 100-hectare Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) produces 10% of the world’s output of rare earth oxides (REOs), minerals needed in technologies including mobile phones, hard drives, fiber optic cables, surgical lasers, and cruise missiles. Lynas, an Australian company, imports concentrated ores from mines on Mount Weld in Australia and refines them in Malaysia, where costs are lower; it sells REOs—which include cerium compounds, used in catalytic converters, and neodymium, critical to permanent magnets—to Japan, the United States, and other countries. The plant produced almost 18,000 tons of REOs in 2018.

Now, the LAMP faces closure, barely 7 years after it opened. Environmental groups have long opposed the storage on the site of slightly radioactive waste from the extraction process, and they found a sympathetic ear in a new government elected in May 2018. In December 2018, the government demanded that the facility ship its radioactive waste back to Australia if it wants to renew its operating license, which expires on 2 September. On 12 March 2019overnment task force to help organize the shipments was announced. But the company says exporting the more than 451,000 tons of residue by the deadline is “unachievable.”

 A shutdown would be “a significant event with a ripple effect,” says Ryan Castilloux, a metals and minerals analyst at Adamas Intelligence in Amsterdam. For one thing, the shutdown would strengthen China’s position as the dominant supplier of REOs, which many countries deem a strategic risk. Japan’s electric vehicle industry, for instance, would lose its main supplier of REOs for permanent magnets; “it would have to reestablish a relationship with China after almost a decade of friction” in the REO trade, Castilloux says…. “Although rare earth oxides production worldwide is only worth several billions of dollars, it is essential for industries worth trillions,” Castilloux says.

Rare earth deposits themselves are not scare..Refining them takes lots of corrosive chemicals and generates huge amounts of residue. China was long the sole supplier; when it reduced exports in 2010, citing environmental concerns, prices jumped as much as 26-fold and major consumers scrambled for alternate sources. Lynas has become a “flagship” of REO production outside China, Castilloux says. The United States and Myanmar mine REEs as well, but they are processed in China, which today produces about 89% of the global REO output…

But in Malaysia, the waste has raised red flags. At the LAMP, concentrated ores are roasted with sulfuric acid to dissolve the rare earths and then diluted with water in a process called water leach purification, leaving a moist, pastelike residue. By September 2018, the LAMP had already produced 1.5 million tons of residue; because the ores contain thorium and uranium, almost 30% of it is slightly radioactive.  Some REO facilities elsewhere have built permanent, secure facilities to store such waste, says Julie Klinger, a geographer and expert in REO mining at Boston University; others are secretive about what they do with it.  Radioactivity isn’t the only risk…heavy metals as ickel, chromium, lead, and mercury could contaminate groundwater.

Excerpts by Yao-Hua, Radioactive waste standoff could slash high tech’s supply of rare earth elements, Science Magazine, Apr. 1, 2019

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]