Nickel-Back: Clarifying Critical Minerals

May 17, 2023

Key point: Battery chemistries are changing to rapidly that too much hand-wringing about “critical minerals” may be unwarranted and premature. As I’ve reported before, Lithium and cobalt prices have been crashing for precisely this reason.

Wall Street Journal:

As companies and countries withdraw their support for seabed mining, the about-face is raising broader questions about how metals used in battery production are sourced and the scale of the associated environmental costs. The sourcing of nickel particularly has been in the spotlight.

Last week, A.P. Moller-Maersk became the latest company to drop its investment in The Metals Company, a prospective seabed miner based in Vancouver, British Columbia.Lockheed Martin and Norway’s Storebrand also have recently sold their interests in deep-sea mining companies. Others including German luxury carmaker BMW have said that, given environmental concerns, they won’t use battery metals sourced from the deep sea. More than a dozen countries are concerned about the environmental impact of the practice and are calling for a moratorium on seabed mining.

Exponential growth in the sale of electric vehicles and an expected further rise in the demand for them, however, are fueling a global race to find and mine metals such as nickel and cobalt. Companies are looking to secure supplies in ways that minimize environmental and humanitarian concerns, but are finding it to be a challenge.

For instance, Ford Motor and Volkswagenhave both announced multibillion-dollar investments in Indonesia’s nickel supply chain, which is dominated by Chinese companies such as Contemporary Amperex Technology, or CATL. Ford said the investment provides a low-cost source of nickel that they can directly control to ensure it is mined in line with their sustainability targets. 

Indonesia is the world’s biggest source of nickel. About half the global total—an estimated 1.6 million metric tons—was mined there in 2022, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. 

But the World Wildlife Fund, or WWF, has labeled nickel from the Southeast Asian country a concern because of the high levels of deforestation needed to extract the minerals. The nation has the highest forest loss in mining areas worldwide, according to an April report by the international conservation organization.

Indonesian nickel exists largely in low concentration deposits underneath lush rainforests. To extract the nickel, the mined ore is crushed, converted to a slurry and then treated with acid under high pressure. The process of recovering the mineral in a commercially viable way often requires huge operations and causes significant environmental damage.

Proponents of deep-sea mining say the nascent practice is a less harmful way to extract nickel than how the mineral is currently sourced in Indonesia. “At the moment the growth in nickel supply is coming from equatorial rainforests,” said Gerard Barron, chairman and chief executive of The Metals Company. “So for us the target mineral is nickel.”

TMC aims to harvest nodules from sites in the middle of the Pacific Ocean using a specially designed machine to scrape rocks from the ocean floor that is attached to a ship at the water surface. 

Other nickel sources do exist, but these also aren’t free of concern. Russia was the third-largest global source of nickel but western automakers have been trying to avoid buying from the country since it invaded Ukraine. New Caledonia, an overseas French territory some 750 miles northwest of Australia, is also a source of nickel but environmentalists say mining on the islands threatens some native species such as the New Caledonian crow.

Major miners, including Glencore, are investing in developing nickel recycling; however, different battery chemistries and high startup costs are barriers. Given most electric-vehicle batteries aren’t expected to be recycled until after 10 years of use, primary supply remains the key concern.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace also question the need for fresh mining as new battery chemistries are being developed to avoid using nickel, cobalt and manganese. For example, China’s biggest electric-vehicle maker BYD is opting for lithium iron phosphate batteries only

“There’s lots of changing innovation in battery technologies from producers downstream because of environmental and human rights issues,” said Louisa Casson, global project leader for Greenpeace’s Stop Deep Sea Mining campaign.

A similar trend evolved with cobalt, another mineral that can be extracted from the ocean. Roughly 70% of the blue metal is supplied from the Congo, where organizations have called out human-rights violation and environmental destruction that have been committed in efforts to produce it. Such concerns led many battery makers and car manufacturers to adjust their battery chemistry to minimize or completely avoid using cobalt in their batteries. Deep-sea miners have also recently shifted their focus from cobalt to nickel amid waning demand.


Several years ago, I wrote about “rare earths” (17 unusual chemical elements that are not geologically rare) in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and why they are not a substantial cause for concern in the transition to clean energy. For the past decade, commentators have warned (and stock speculators hyped) that China’s near-monopoly on supermagnet rare-earth elements could make the growing global shift to electric cars and wind turbines impossible—because their motors and generators, respectively, supposedly required supermagnets and hence rare earths. But that’s nonsense.

In the four years since that Bulletin article, one of the key substitutions it mentions—iron-nitride supermagnets using no rare earths but with comparable or potentially greater performance—entered the market. But even without that magnet innovation, everything that permanent-magnet motors and generators do can also be done as well or better using two other innovations that require no rare earth minerals: control software and power electronics made of silicon, the most abundant solid element on Earth.

Both kinds of magnet-free machines can do everything required not only in electric cars but also in wind turbines—functions often claimed to be impossible without tons of neodymium. That some wind turbines use rare-earth permanent-magnet generators does not mean others must. It’s better not to, and the word is spreading. Tesla’s car business was built on magnet-free induction motors. Its latest autos use the second magnet-free kind, synchronous reluctance motors, albeit spiced with small magnets. But most commentators on “blood minerals” are not experts on motors, solar cells, electricity, electronics, or even mining. They should talk to more people who are.


One Response to “Nickel-Back: Clarifying Critical Minerals”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    The oceans are big. I have no problem having specific areas set aside (sacrificed, as it were) for mining, with the most vulnerable areas put off limit.

    As far as I can tell, fishing, which by definition targets the life-filled part of the sea, continues to do more damage than disrupting 0.01% of the sea floor.

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