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The reality of resourcing the future

Laurence Dyer, Associate Professor, Curtin University

The energy transition is revolutionary in the mining and metals production space but it is not a straightforward enterprise. It has completely changed the outlook of our industry to the point that everything is shifting from research to commodity production and the way we source metals. But there is often a disconnect between the energy transition and what it will take to produce the metals required for the energy transition. At the ER Law Annual Conference in October, I will be talking about what it really means to produce the metals required to fuel the transition, what kind of volumes will be required and what that means from a supply perspective. 

There are many varied elements that are required to fuel the energy transition and each has a very different set of requirements and systems around them. For example, nickel is relatively open in terms of primary production whereas rare earth minerals have been China dominated. The way the Chinese have set up the market means that they have a monopoly on supply and demand as well as the technology. This makes it very challenging for anyone else to develop a supply chain because you have to compete with a far more mature technological market. 

When we look at some of the smaller production elements, like germanium and selenium, there are other challenges. These elements are critical to supporting the energy transition but the volumes we need are thousands of times more than are currently produced. Nobody currently produces these elements as a primary product because there hasn't been a market value for them. As demand pushes the price of these minerals up it may actually make them viable to produce at much higher volumes.

The question of volume is relative though. Take copper for example, it’s also essential to support the transition but it’s already an enormous industry so we only need to increase its production by two or three times over the next 30 years. Doubling the size of that industry is a completely different prospect than increasing the production of one of these very small specialty elements by one thousand times.

Even if we can scale up production of these elements there are other factors that need to be considered. What is the environmental impact of increased production? Where is the resource going to be produced? Where are the reagents going to come from?   

Take cobalt for example. About 70% of it comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo which raises concerns about ethical supply. A mining company has to not only think about reducing carbon emissions and making sure their processes are environmentally sound, but they also have to worry about who their producers are and where they sell their product. If they can show their green credentials and ethical processing systems from the very start through to where their product is sold they can command a premium. This is different to what we’ve experienced in the past. 

We're also really starting to see a push into a circular economy, which requires that these metals are recycled as much as physically possible. Therefore, every product and waste stream needs to be considered for recycling or repurposing to this end and to continue to shrink the environmental footprint. Recycling of products then also has implications for manufacturing processes.

Take lithium ion battery recycling. Normally, to recycle a solid we shred materials then try to pull apart all of the different components and separate them out. If you do that with a battery it is relatively dangerous and as soon as you shred all of the components they get mixed together and it makes them much harder to separate. So current technology makes it infeasible to properly recycle these batteries, which turns something that contributes to renewable power into a significant legacy issue in terms of hazardous waste. To create a circular economy we now need to look at the manufacturing process to see if we can make a battery that's easy to take apart and recycle as well. 

The mining industry is in a renaissance. We have an opportunity not just for massive economic gains but to rebrand the industry as well. Many see the industry as old and dirty, but it’s also necessary to feed economic growth and the energy transition. Anywhere that technology can take us, mining has to be a part of it - it’s core to everything we do going forward. So making sure the industry can support the energy transition and everything that comes with it is critical. 

To hear more about how we resource the future, you can register to attend the ER Law Annual Conference HERE 


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