How Critical? Another Look at Energy Transition Minerals

January 9, 2023

Very nice Substack post today by Hannah Ritchie, who is Director of Research for the Our World in Data service, based at Oxford University. (so valuable!)

She goes into some detail on the various “rare” earths and other inputs that will be needed for the energy transition. I think she comes down about where Jim Kramer of Rice University did in the above video. Challenging but unlike runaway climate change, solvable.

Hannah Ritchie in Substack:

Many countries tried to boycott Russian goods when it invaded Ukraine last year. But this hasn’t been easy. Russia was the world’s largest fossil fuel exporter in 2021, and many countries – especially in Europe – have struggled to find alternatives.

The war put our fossil fuel dependency in the spotlight.

One argument for decarbonisation – as if climate change and air pollution weren’t enough – is that it would give countries energy security. They wouldn’t have to rely on others for fossil fuel supplies.

Some people have pushed back on this pipe dream. They say that a low-carbon energy system wouldn’t solve this: we’d still be dependent on a handful of countries for the minerals we need for solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and electric vehicles. We’d just substitute one dependency for another.

But is this true? Are the world’s minerals concentrated in only a few countries?

In this article, I look at the numbers on mineral production and reserves by country. This data comes from the US Geological Survey (USGS).

My aim is to get us grounded on the numbers. There are lots of other factors we need to consider, including the cost, social and environmental impacts of mining. I’m not tackling those topics here; not because they’re not important but because there’s only so much you can pack into a single post. 

I first want to show where the world’s mineral resources are. What we do with them (if anything) is a separate question.

Every mineral we’ll go through has a different set of top countries. Some countries are rich in only one mineral. Indonesia, for example, is the leader in nickel but doesn’t have large reserves of much else.

But there are a handful of countries that dominate across many minerals. These are China, Australia, Chile, Brazil, the United States, Russia, and South Africa.

In the table, I’ve shown the percentage of the world’s reserves that each country has.

To clarify what a reserve is: it’s a deposit of a mineral that has been studied, and is assessed to be technologically and economically feasible to extract under current market conditions. The amount of known reserves can change over time, as we discover new ones, technologies improve, and markets change to make it economical for them to be mined.

There are several minerals where reserves are highly concentrated: molybdenum, vanadium, and chromium are prime examples. A few countries have almost all of it.

But, for most, there is a range of countries – geographically and politically diverse – that have sizable resources. These countries are not yet mining the mineral, but they could.

We should also acknowledge that fossil fuel dependency is not the same as a dependency on low-carbon technologies. The surge in demand for minerals for low-carbon tech will be temporary. The transition comes with an initial scale-up stage to build the panels, turbines, and batteries. Think of it like a capital cost. The ‘running’ cost is basically zero. Your negotiator is not Russia, China, or the US, it’s the sun and the wind.

There is also the opportunity to recycle or repurpose them at the end of their life. Recycling rates vary from mineral to mineral, but recovery methods will continue to improve – especially if countries invest in these technologies as a way of becoming more self-sufficient. 

This is different from a dependency on fossil fuels. That needs an endless supply of coal, oil, and gas. And you can’t recycle it at the end of its life. The running costs are high, and you’re completely tied to those that have the fuel you need. Play ball or the lights go out.

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Hannah goes thru all the key minerals in some detail. I’ll post here a small sample. For more, go to her page.

Lithium

What is it used for? Electric vehicles and battery storage.

Global production in 2021: 105,000 tonnes.

Global known reserves in 2021: 27 million tonnes.

Geographical concentration: Lithium is the only mineral on the list that the USGS also provides data on resources, alongside production and reserves. ‘Resources’ are estimates of the total amount of a mineral in discovered and undiscovered deposits.

Lithium production is dominated by a few countries: Australia, Chile, and China account for almost 90% of the global total.

Reserves are slightly more diversified. But resources are even more so: a large number of countries have deposits of lithium that haven’t been assessed yet, or are not considered technologically or economically feasible to extract at the moment.

Cobalt

What is it used for? Electric vehicles and battery storage.

Global production in 2021: 170,000 tonnes.

Global known reserves in 2021: 7.6 million tonnes.

Geographical concentration: Most of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Child labor, slavery, and human rights abuses have been widely documented in DRC’s cobalt mining industry. This has put increasing attention on EV developers to build battery technologies less dependent on cobalt.

But, global reserves are more diverse than current production. Many more countries – such as Australia – have reasonably large reserves of cobalt available.

Copper

What is it used for? Solar PV, wind energy, concentrating solar power, geothermal, geothermal, hydropower, nuclear, electric vehicles, battery storage, and electricity grid expansion.

Global production in 2021: 21,000 tonnes.

Global known reserves in 2021: 880,000 tonnes.

Geographical concentration: Copper mine production is reasonably diverse: many countries across the Americas – both North and South – extract it. However, copper refining is much less so: China accounts for a much larger share, making up almost 40% of the total.

Reserves are even more widely distributed. Many countries across South America have large reserves, as does Australia and Russia.

See more here:

Lithium • Cobalt • Copper • Nickel • Silver • Manganese • Silicon • Molybdenum • Zinc • Chromium • Graphite • Vanadium

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One Response to “How Critical? Another Look at Energy Transition Minerals”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Bear in mind that technology adapts to the ongoing costs of various components. Aluminum, which is far more abundant and cheaper than the functionally superior conductivity of silver, gold and copper, is used for the cross-country transmission cables.


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