Article originally posted on UrbanLink Magazine

Title: Critical Minerals: A New Dilemma for Mining Opponents and Going Green

Published Date: April 19th, 2021

Author: Noelle Lovern

Is there an issue that your company or organization needs the public to get behind to turn the tide? Our team has deep expertise in public affairs for multiple industries including natural resources, healthcare, and public lands. Our storytelling builds balanced and credible arguments around issues that are often presented through a single lens or perspective. Consider this article on clean energy and critical minerals.

Ask the question, “Should mining be allowed to strip and pillage domestic, public lands?” and the resounding response will likely be an emphatic, “No!” But then follow that question with “Do you support investment in carbon reducing technologies?” and many of the same people would answer, “Yes!” Examined separately, these answers are understandable, but there is an underlying dichotomy between them.Simultaneously, the movement to combat global climate change as well as preserving our public lands and wildernesses, both pointed national concerns, are dependent on the use of the technologies requiring mined minerals. We want cleaner, more efficient electric vehicles to cut back on pollutants and carbon emissions, yet creating these vehicles depends on substantial amounts of lithium and graphite. How then do we reconcile these competing priorities as the demand for critical minerals correlates directly to development of low carbon technologies?

It is impossible to ignore that the two are not mutually exclusive: green and carbon reducing technologies are highly dependent on strategic and critical minerals. Solar farms require mining tellurium to produce their necessary solar panels. Electric vehicles require more cobalt than 1,000 smart phone batteries. The average American typically uses about 40,000 pounds of new minerals each year, including zinc, copper, iron, salt, etc.

The debate is steeped in historical controversy, at the core of which exists tainted legacy issues positioning environmentalists against mining companies and industry advocates. The battle between these opposing parties has percolated for over a century. And today, the debate is rapidly heating up over reducing carbon footprints and expanding green technologies.

Critical Access, Critical Minerals

In the pursuit of carbon-reduced technologies, there has a been a surge of new processes, products, and devices into the market. Whether it’s HERMES, an EU-funded project exploring the heat generating potential of cold fusion, or the addition of large automobiles like SUVs or the new Hummer to the list of electric vehicles, low-carbon innovations require increased reserves of strategic minerals.

The primary challenge to growing and sustaining many green products and technologies is our nation’s dependency on mineral imports. The US is 100 percent dependent on foreign countries for 13 out of the 35 critical minerals. Within this list is a class of 17 minerals called rare earths, some of which (including lanthanum, cerium, and terbium) are needed for manufacturing electric vehicles, cell phones, mobile devices, x-ray machines and defense systems.

China has long understood the power wielded by those who control these mineral deposits and is actively seeking to lockdown the world supply. At present, the US imports 80 percent of rare earths from China’s consolidated control. Even with moves by the US and Japan to reduce China’s grip on minerals by moving 97 percent of the production of rare earths to other countries by 2025, China will continue to dominate the refining process.

Aside from China, some of the largest exporters of critical minerals have unstable economies and political systems, while others are simply unfriendly to the US. With minimal notice, supplies could be cutoff, disrupting production and revenue streams for major manufacturers, and de-stabilizing economies and tech industries.

Shoring Up Access to Critical Minerals

Data from 2020 showed that more than 50 percent of 32 critical minerals are imported from foreign sources. This, alone, creates national security risks relating to impacts in crucial supply chains feeding manufacturers of technologies, energy sources, and national defense systems. Disrupted supply chains often lead to inflated demand for products, like lumber or medicine, and compromised energy sources could throw commercial services and industries crucial to everyday life into complete disarray.

In February 2021, the US government acknowledged sustainable sources of these minerals as critical and took two major actions to address vulnerabilities.

First, the Department of Defense awarded a Defense Production Act Title III technology investment agreement to Australian mining company, Lynas Rare Earths Ltd., the only rare earths minerals producer outside of China. This $30.4 million agreement launches a project aiming to produce 25 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth oxides.

The second action was an Executive Order from the White House to conduct the 100-Day Supply Chain Review. The Order names two priorities related to energy and minerals:

  1. Inventorying the national supply of high-capacity batteries by the Department of Energy. High-capacity batteries require cobalt, copper, nickel, lithium, and manganese to build, therefore understanding current inventory levels allows us to predict and plan how to source and stockpile these minerals and the batteries themselves.
  2. Identifying risks in the supply chain for critical and strategic minerals by the Department of Defense (DOD). Supply chain disruption not only creates instability for the public but can also drain stores of emergency resources necessary for national security (for example, the draining of emergency medical supplies and equipment stored during the COVID-19 pandemic). Finding weak links in the strategic mineral supply chain allows the DOD to take preventive measures to obtain the supplies necessary to maintain and stockpile critical defense technologies.

Each of these initiatives signal both a concern for potential disruptions and an adamancy to defend critical supply chains – especially those needed for power generation and storage.

Powering Clean Technologies

Generating power is only one piece of the clean energy economy. Energy storage is arguably the biggest barrier to widespread adoption of electrification, and one of the primary challenges the energy industry is working to overcome. Low-carbon technologies are projected to increase the need for critical minerals up to 1000 percent by 2050. From electric vehicles (EVs) to solar photovoltaic (PV) industries, every clean technology requires strategic minerals for production and distribution, but most of all in storage (batteries).

Batteries have existed since the late 1800s and currently have many advanced formulations, including one of the most popular modern energy storage products: lithium-ion batteries, or LIBs. LIBs are high-capacity long-life batteries commonly used for small scale applications. With proper modifications they offer the most promise to eventually power large scale applications.

Minerals Critical to Energy Storage

In pursuit of sustainable battery technologies, it is important to understand the current landscape. For instance, the amount of electrical storage for EV batteries ranges from 70 kWh to 200 kWh for the new electric GMC Hummer. Keep in mind that one 70 kWh EV battery requires 30 pounds of battery quality nickel, 10 pounds of cobalt, and 140 pounds of lithium. Development, testing, and production of battery technology requires hefty amounts of these three minerals, two of which the US does not produce, nor possess, a national supply or reserve.

Beyond Battery Life

Until recently, batteries have been designed for capacity and utility with little consideration to waste. The scarcity of some minerals used in battery manufacturing, compounded by the toxicity of battery waste, has recently encouraged a new industry pivot toward perfecting batteries for recycling. Currently, the US recycles only 5 percent of LIBs, making new innovations top priority for battery manufacturers. New battery technology aims to use most, if not all, of the strategic minerals they contain and to make any unused minerals retrievable and recyclable.

Critical Move to Production

While the US has dropped low on the charts in production of strategic minerals, countries including Canada and Australia, each of which maintain equally stringent environmental permitting laws, are producing and exporting seven of the top critical minerals (cobalt, gallium, beryllium, graphite, tellurium, lithium, platinum elements, and others). Australia and Canada have balanced the importance of domestically supplied strategic minerals with tightly structured oversight and a regulated statutory two-year environmental permitting process.

While regulatory oversight in these countries outpaces US processes, expanded partnerships with Australia and Canada, such as the Critical Minerals Mapping Initiative, try to bolster and maintain a diversified supply of critical minerals between the three countries.

The relationship between our three countries notwithstanding, mining investors are still often deterred from funding projects in the US due to it taking up to five times longer to obtain approval or rejection for permitting a proposed project. This has put US mining on the ropes at a time when the clean energy industry needs mineral development most. Both industries, low-carbon technology and mining, have a vested interest in finding solutions that match their needs, but will they find the common ground to collaborate and drive innovation closer toward carbon net-zero?

A Closer Look at Critical Minerals:

Understanding the strategic minerals necessary for a robust and sustainable energy efficient technology industry is important for achieving a stable, productive future for our economy and to satisfy the needs of our ever technologically dependent way of life. Below is a short brief on a few of the most critical strategic minerals, with links to further education if your interest is piqued.

US Cobalt Status: No Production & No Reserves

Access to critical minerals that are instrumental in battery technology entails navigating environmental issues and political landscapes. One of the most precarious of these, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is home to 50 percent of the global supply of cobalt.

Cobalt, the most expensive and the rarest mineral critical to battery development, is often referred to as the “blood diamond of batteries” based on practices that endanger the child workforces in the mines. Human rights activists are pushing the technology industry and battery makers to move away from cobalt to other battery formulations.

Tesla is working with a Chinese battery company, Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd., to develop reduced cobalt batteries. While the new formulation reduces the need for cobalt, it increases the need for battery quality nickel, which comes with its own challenges.

Figure representing Cobalt on the periodic table

US Nickel Status: 26,500 Production & 160,000 Reserves*

Currently, nickel is mostly used to produce stainless steel products. However, as the demand for clean technologies grows so will the need for nickel, and for substantially more quality than is now in production. It is projected that by 2030, the demand for battery grade nickel, which is a much higher quality than what’s used in stainless steel products, will increase by 10-to-20-fold. Shifting production from lower quality to battery quality nickel is a wholesale change which includes identifying sources for the much rarer nickel sulphides and modifying processing.

Figure representing Nickel on the periodic table

US Lithium Status: No Production & No Reserves

The supply of lithium is considered pivotal to global electrification, however, as demand for electric vehicles increases the long-term supply of this mineral is questionable. In 2019, the demand for lithium increased by 49 kilotons and 60 percent of that was for battery products. With an estimated 30-95 million tons of lithium on the earth, better design and recycling is required to slow the depletion, however, researchers project that supplies will be depleted by around 2100.

Figure representing Lithium on the periodic table

*Units measured in metric tons.