I read Jit’s recent article, On the Materials Intensity of Wind Power shortly before learning about yet another WEET conference, to take place on 8th June 2023, with the title “Next steps for critical minerals in the UK”. From this I learned (and I suppose we should be relieved to learn it, given the whole net zero agenda) that there is a Policy Lead, Critical Minerals, at BEIS; there is a UK Critical Minerals Association; and a UK Critical Minerals Strategy. I am less reassured by the fact that net zero and opposition to fossil fuels continue, and the government continues to push much that is counter-factual:

A new cohort of critical minerals are becoming even more important as we seek to bolster our energy security and domestic industrial resilience – in light of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine – and as we move away from volatile, expensive fossil fuels.

Hubris

Running through this we find the same hubris that leads so many people in the UK to demand that “we” (the UK) “tackle” climate change (as if we could). It appears that the UK is going to “tackle” international critical minerals markets:

Through this strategy, the UK will:

accelerate growth of the UK’s domestic capabilities

collaborate with international partners

enhance international markets to make them more responsive, transparent and responsible

It must be a pretty amazing strategy if we in the UK can achieve that third point on our own, but then again, we apparently think we can unilaterally tackle “the climate crisis”.

Dependence on China

There is more detail of the strategy in a pdf document, which runs to 48 pages, including glossy end-pieces, index, etc. This does recognise some awkward truths:

The world in 2040 is expected to need four times as many critical minerals for clean energy technologies as it does today.

However, critical mineral supply chains are complex and opaque, the market is volatile and distorted, and China is the dominant player. This creates a situation where UK jobs and industries rely on minerals vulnerable to market shocks, geopolitical events and logistical disruptions, at a time when global demand for these minerals is rising faster than ever.

It is vital that we make our supply chains more resilient and more diverse to support British industries of the future, deliver on our energy transition and protect our national security.

It is rather depressing to see that although there is a recognition that China is the dominant player in this crucial area, there is no recognition that the transition to renewable energy, and the obsession with net zero, therefore causes us problems. Although we need critical minerals for lots of other things, it really isn’t very clever to make us more dependent on them than necessary, especially in the light of China’s dominance in this area.

And that, it seems, is the plan:

Countries’ climate change ambitions are changing the way we produce, distribute and store energy. Clean energy technologies – such as electric cars, wind turbines, photovoltaics, hydrogen production and nuclear reactors – will need to be deployed quickly. The UK currently relies on complex and delicate global supply chains for its rapidly growing demand for critical minerals to fuel its net zero future . Seven of the government’s Ten Point Plan targets for a green industrial revolution assume a stable supply of critical minerals. Global demand for electric vehicle battery minerals (lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel) is projected to increase by between 6 and 13 times by 2040 under stated policies, which exceeds the rate at which new primary and secondary sources are currently being developed. The UK’s automotive and electric vehicle battery ecosystem, as an example, could grow by 100,000 jobs by 2040 but depends on the development of a UK battery manufacturing capability. Our intention to build a new generation of gigafactories will only happen in the UK if there is a resilient supply of battery minerals.

Despite this, the document is clearly written, and there is a plan, including the creation of “an enabling environment for companies to develop critical mineral capabilities in UK, including exploration, extraction, refining, materials manufacturing, recovery and recycling”. It is worth a read.

Other developments

There is a Critical Minerals Expert Committee, which first met on 2nd December 2021, and which has at least twenty external members, with some pretty impressive-looking expertise. In addition, there is a UK Critical Minerals Intelligence Centre, launched in July 2022 and run by the British Geological Survey, with support (presumably financial) from the BEIS.

At least Paul Lusty, the Intelligence Centre’s Director, recognises the problem:

The UK has announced world-leading targets to decarbonise the economy, which include plans to build an electric vehicle supply chain and transform the energy system using offshore wind and clean hydrogen. Building these technologies and the associated infrastructure will require substantial quantities of critical minerals. The UK’s current critical mineral needs are met almost entirely from overseas, through complex and dynamic international supply chains that often have poor end-to-end visibility. The Centre will help the Government and industry understand future UK critical minerals demand, and potential chain supply vulnerabilities.

Irony

The notes with the email relating to the WEET conference on critical minerals make a rather oblique reference to the Indonesia-UK memorandum of understanding, which was signed in October 2022, and (so the notes tell me) was “intended to boost investment in sectors the UK excels in, including through access to critical minerals”.

This is intriguing, since the memorandum includes not a single reference to critical minerals. The recitals to the agreement are borderline hilarious, since they purport to acknowledge “Indonesia’s climate leadership…as set out in Indonesia’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).” The last time I looked at Indonesia’s NDC, I noted this:

Their INDC is surprisingly light on detail, for a country with approximately 260 million inhabitants (the 4th most populous country on the planet) and with rather large problems from burning forests (ironically much of which is to clear land for biofuels growth)…

…Their INDC even admits that “Most emissions (63%) are the result of land use change and peat and forest fires, with combustion of forest fuels contributing approximately 19% of total emissions.”

All of which makes the virtuous noises in Indonesia’s INDC a little hard to stomach. They offer an unconditional 29% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030, and up to 41% with international support, but this is against a Business as Usual scenario. The problem with this is the rate at which their GHG emissions are increasing. They tell us that GHG emissions were 1,400 MtCO2eq in 2000, had risen to 1,800 in 2005, and the BaU scenario will see them double by 2030 from their 2000 figure, to 2,800. So even the conditional offer would only take them back to 2005 levels, and the unconditional offer would see their emissions rise.

Their INDC runs to only 8 pages plus a 3 page annex. It is extremely light on hard information. They would like international financial assistance, but they don’t say how much. They devote one small paragraph to steps to clamp down on land use change, despite the hugely significant importance of this topic in the context of their GHG emissions.

To say I’m unimpressed would be an understatement.

In the relatively short time since I wrote that, Indonesia’s population is thought to have increased to 276.3 million people, which offers up an indication of the scale of the problem.

The Memorandum of Understanding appears to be based around the idea that the UK will help Indonesia with the creation and maintenance of forestry and other land use (FOLU) CO2 “sinks”. In return (presumably, as it has been left unwritten) is the hope that Indonesia will supply the UK with critical minerals. It seems to be well placed to supply many of them. It’s more than a little ironic that the UK’s net zero plans seem to be dependent, at least in part, on a country with the tenth highest annual CO2 emissions currently and few meaningful plans to reduce them.

Green Lithium

It appears that green lithium is a thing. Teesside is to be the site of “the UK’s first large-scale merchant lithium refinery, providing battery grade materials for use in the electric vehicle, renewable energy and consumer technology supply chains”. This stuff always costs the taxpayer, but in the context of net zero expenditure, this is small change:

The UK Government has backed Green Lithium with a grant of over £600,000 through the Automotive Transformation Fund.

The plan is to reduce the CO2 emissions associated with processing lithium. The idea that this is “green” might be a little optimistic, according to Green Car Congress in October 2020:

With demand for lithium set to increase over the next decade… CO2 emissions from lithium production are set to triple by 2025 versus current levels and to grow by a factor of six by 2030, with the vast majority of this coming from mineral concentrate production, shipping and refining.

Reducing emissions associated with refining lithium is all well and good, but there are still mining and transport to consider. And as the Guardian headline from June 2021 reminds us “The rush to ‘go electric’ comes with a hidden cost: destructive lithium mining”.

Odds and ends

As seems to be the case with all WEET conferences discussing Net zero issues, there is a section about support for industry (which I assume can be translated as meaning more taxpayer support) and “tackling barriers”. Despite the constant cost to the taxpayer and the barriers to be tackled, the net zero juggernaut rolls on and on relentlessly.

Conclusion

It’s difficult to know what to make of all this. Many people are worried about the potentially environmentally destructive aspects of mining critical minerals, whether there are even enough of them to satisfy the international “green” agenda, and the emissions associated with extracting, transporting and refining them. The Chinese dominance of this area is a matter for concern, with real worries about supply chains. After all, if we in the UK cannot access sufficient minerals to satisfy net zero plans, then net zero plans (and jobs) must be in jeopardy. On the plus side, the government does seem to have woken up to some of these problems, but apparently not enough to wonder whether these issues cast any doubt on the net zero agenda.

22 Comments

  1. Hi Mark – Merry Xmas Mate

    your post header pic tells a story as well (can’t tell where it’s from).

    just look how windy the way trucks (Diesel I presume) need to go just to get to the bottom/top.

    no wonder it’s expensive to mine like this.

    ps – Alan has been quite lately, is he OK?

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  2. Mark notes well enough that the issue of critical mineral supply is obliquely acknowledged but with no sensible pathway for any resolution.

    As I noted in the earlier discussion on this, and even if Michaux’ paper is disregarded (which those of us involved in attempting to thread the needle do not), the lack of practical discussion says that resolution is not actually taken seriously. To paraphrase, perhaps summarise, “elite” thinking: the proles can wait.

    Australia has enormous numbers of deposits for some of the materials required for NZ. On any reasonable attempt at estimating potential NZ demand, we regard these deposits as completely inadequate in any case. A group of academics has put up a large scale proposal for “renewable energy hubs” across the northern half of the continent. Three of these, actually, each with a geographic area about twice the size of the UK. Immediately, the green contingents of the MSM attacked it for potential destruction of habitats (not for the wholly impractical nature of the proposals) and the various indigenous groups have instantly claimed ownership of the land with all that may entail for deciding on land use. For comparison, the current land use for mining in Australia totals 0.1% of the geographical areas outside the cities and towns – and this is under constant attack.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. dfhunter, the picture I used was simply a generic one – sometimes it can be a bit of an effort to find one that does exactly what I’m looking for and which is copyright-free. However, a quick internet search for pictures of critical minerals will quickly produce many pictures of massive environmentally damaging mines. Even the Guardian, in the article I linked to near the end of the above piece, admits this:

    I had come to the salt flat to research an emerging environmental dilemma. In order to stave off the worst of the accelerating climate crisis, we need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions. To do so, energy systems around the world must transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Lithium batteries play a key role in this transition: they power electric vehicles and store energy on renewable grids, helping to cut emissions from transportation and energy sectors. Underneath the Atacama salt flat lies most of the world’s lithium reserves; Chile currently supplies almost a quarter of the global market. But extracting lithium from this unique landscape comes at a grave environmental and social cost.

    In the mining installations, which occupy more than 78 sq km (30 sq miles) and are operated by multinationals SQM and Albemarle, brine is pumped to the surface and arrayed in evaporation ponds resulting in a lithium-rich concentrate; viewed from above, the pools are shades of chartreuse. The entire process uses enormous quantities of water in an already parched environment. As a result, freshwater is less accessible to the 18 indigenous Atacameño communities that live on the flat’s perimeter, and the habitats of species such as Andean flamingoes have been disrupted…

    …These facts raise an uncomfortable question that reverberates around the world: does fighting the climate crisis mean sacrificing communities and ecosystems?

    Needless to say, the answer, so far as climate alarmists are concerned, is “yes”.

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  4. When it comes to rare earths and other obscure elements, it pays to look at what a blogger, whose politics might differ from yours, says, simply because of practical experience as a scandium trader. Anything the mass media says about obscure minerals is simply wrong, inaccurate or misleading, and that probably extends to oil, steel and coal as well. For example

    https://www.timworstall.com/2022/12/mr-duncan-smith-to-the-white-telephone-please-white-telephone-for-mr-duncan-smith/

    How much do the proponents of EVs with lithium batteries know about the sources of lithium and the extraction processes? Also rare earth minerals are not rare in the sense of being hard to find or locate : they are rare in the sense of being strange. They all occur together and it takes energy costly and environmentally hostile techniques to pull them apart…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting – thanks for drawing attention to that. Would Tim Worstall approve or decry the UK government’s strategy, I wonder?

    Of course, the UK has plenty of coal and gas. We could just use that for energy…

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  6. Man in a Barrel,

    “Anything the mass media says about obscure minerals is simply wrong, inaccurate or misleading, ..”

    Tesla has been using batteries that look like they are about the size of AA batteries. They have new ones that look similar to D batteries. I’m finding all kinds of conflicting stuff about whether they have any cobalt in them.

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  7. TW is agnostic about global warming but, if you think it is worth bothering about, you should just tax CO2 emissions. In his view, any government strategy other than that will either fail or exacerbate the problem. Putting words into his mouth of course….

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  8. Mark I doubt very much if an opencast excavation like that which you highlight your article would be used to extract rare earths. Opencasts are for extracting materials like copper present uniformly in very small amounts. Rare earths are much more likely to be concentrated in parts of an ore, so mining technologies for selective removal are most likely to be used, leaving the dross behind.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Alan,

    Normally I would defer to you on such issues, but this time I ‘m not sure. Search the internet for images of lithium or cadmium mines, for example, and you will find plenty of similar pictures. Of course they may be making the same (incorrect?) assumptions as me and also be using incorrect stock photos. However, I don’t think so. Take a look at the image used with this article:

    https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/02/a-visit-to-the-only-american-mine-for-rare-earth-metals/253372/

    Nevertheless, welcome back!

    Like

  10. Hi Mark,

    bit O/T & old news, but relevant to your “Dependence on China” –

    from your Atlantic link above, dated 2012.
    I googled “Molycorp” & latest article found – https://www.mining.com/molycorp-shuts-down-mountain-pass-rare-earth-plant/
    “Cecilia Jamasmie | August 26, 2015 | 3:00 am Battery Metals China Europe Rare Earth

    Molycorp, the U.S.’s only miner and processor of rare earths, said it would transition the facility to a “care and maintenance” mode, adding it plans to continue serving its rare earth customers via its production facilities in Estonia and China.”

    Like

  11. Mark. There is something odd about the molycorp article you supplied, Firstly only Molycorp supplied any photograph of an opencast mine. The majority were taken by Atlantic’s authors and do no show any surface workings. Second, most photographs of working opencasts show pristinely sharp quarry edges, they have to, the roadways provide the only access to the quarry floor and new material. If a truck skidded of the roadway it would be a disaster, shutting down the mine. Most of the Molycorp’s quarry walls are degraded. Those roadways with trucks on them appear distinctly sharper and still look maintained. They don’t rise to the quarry top.

    I suggest Molycorp was originally mining something else originally and subsequently switched to rare earths. It has essentially abandoned its old opencast mine and only uses part of it for access.

    All speculation of course, but to me it makes sense.

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  12. Alan, Good to see you back: all the best for a speedy recovery!
    From a bit of background reading, this Mountain Pass mine has a chequered past with a variety of owners, bankruptcy and environmental breaches.
    Further to your point, a comment on one of the articles I read makes me wonder if they have switched from mining fresh ore to re-processing tailings from earlier operations. The mine has been open a long time – over 70 years aiui – so there will have been some changes in the minerals sought and, I guess, in the extraction performance.
    Also, would I be right in saying that most rare earths are recovered as by-/co-products of mining for copper and/or nickel?

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  13. Here is a very interesting article, just published, on Mountain Pass and the demise of molycorp. The mine is currently owned and run by an outfit called MP Materials.
    I don’t know how old the photograph accompanying the article is but according to the text the mine is still active.

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  14. “Huge rare earth metals discovery in Arctic Sweden”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-64253708

    Europe’s largest deposit of rare earths – which are used from mobile phones to missiles – has been found in Sweden.

    No rare earths are mined in Europe at the moment and a Swedish minister hailed the find as a way of reducing the EU’s dependence on China.

    The discovery is also being seen as “decisive” for the green transition, given the expected rise in demand for electric vehicles or wind turbines.

    Some 98% of rare earths used in the EU in 2021 were imported from China.

    Over one million tonnes are reported to have now been found in Sweden’s far north.

    Although significant, that is a fraction of the world’s 120-million-tonne reserves, according to a US estimate.

    The term rare earth refers to a group of 17 elements that are used to make a range of products and infrastructure which are increasingly important to everyday life.

    They can be found in mobiles, hard drives and trains. But they are also important for green technology including wind turbines and electric vehicles. Some are essential for military equipment like missile guidance systems.

    Extraction is both difficult and potentially damaging to the environment.

    Demand for them is expected to increase fivefold by 2030.

    “Lithum and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas,” the EU’s internal market commissioner Thierry Breton said last year….

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  15. Alan, Mike and Paul, thanks for your ongoing input. However, the picture accompanying the piece about Molycorp was only intended as an example – one of many I selected at random after a quick internet search.

    As for mining rare earth minerals generally, this might (or might not!) be of interest:

    “How Rare-Earth Mining Has Devastated China’s Environment”

    https://earth.org/rare-earth-mining-has-devastated-chinas-environment/

    I will grant that, for instance, Getty Images of rare earth mines, although environmentally awful, are by and large perhaps not so dramatic as the stock photo I used:

    https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/photos/rare-earth-mining

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  16. Mikehig. I know very little about the geology of rare earths, other than they substitute in minor amounts for other common earth metals like calcium or magnesium in common minerals like feldspars. They are usually well dispersed. Wikipedia has a good article.

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  17. “Revealed: how US transition to electric cars threatens environmental havoc
    By 2050 electric vehicles could require huge amounts of lithium for their batteries, causing damaging expansions of mining”

    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/jan/24/us-electric-vehicles-lithium-consequences-research

    The US’s transition to electric vehicles could require three times as much lithium as is currently produced for the entire global market, causing needless water shortages, Indigenous land grabs, and ecosystem destruction inside and outside its borders, new research finds.

    It warns that unless the US’s dependence on cars in towns and cities falls drastically, the transition to lithium battery-powered electric vehicles by 2050 will deepen global environmental and social inequalities linked to mining – and may even jeopardize the 1.5C global heating target….

    …Recognizing the harms of ‘white gold’

    The global demand for lithium, also known as white gold, is predicted to rise over 40 times by 2040, driven predominantly by the shift to electric vehicles. Grassroots protests and lawsuits against lithium mining are on the rise from the US and Chile to Serbia and Tibet amid rising concern about the socio-environmental impacts and increasingly tense geopolitics around supply…

    …Electric vehicles are already the largest source of demand for lithium – the soft, white metal common to all current rechargeable batteries.

    Mining lithium is a fraught business, and the rise in demand for EVs is contributing to a rise in social and environmental harms – and global supply chain bottlenecks.

    If Americans continue to depend on cars at the current rate, by 2050 the US alone would need triple the amount of lithium currently produced for the entire global market, which would have dire consequences for water and food supplies, biodiversity, and Indigenous rights….

    …Lithium deposits are geologically widespread and abundant, but 95% of global production is currently concentrated in Australia, Chile, China and Argentina. Large new deposits have been found in diverse countries including Mexico, the US, Portugal, Germany, Kazakhstan, Congo and Mali.

    Lithium mining is, like all mining, environmentally and socially harmful. More than half the current lithium production, which is very water intensive, takes place in regions blighted by water shortages that are likely to get worse due to global heating.

    Despite being a relatively new industry, lithium extraction has a track record of land and water pollution, ecosystem destruction and violations against Indigenous and rural communities.

    In the US, only one small lithium mine, in Nevada, is currently operational, but the drought-affected state has at least 50 new projects under development. This includes the massive Thacker Pass mine, approved at the end of the Trump administration, which is opposed by environmentalists, ranchers and Indigenous tribes due to the lack of consultation and inadequate environmental review.

    In Chile and Argentina, the world’s second- and fourth-largest lithium producers respectively, broken promises by corporations, water scarcity, land contamination and the lack of informed consent from Indigenous groups has fueled resistance and social conflicts…

    The answer, it seems, is not to stop going down the EV route; rather we have to use cars less – a lot less.

    Like

  18. Mark; it’s not that we need to use cars less, it’s that we need to have fewer cars! That’s the only way to reduce the demand for virgin material.
    Of course there are many hypothetical scenarios where we will cease to own cars and will just summon an automated cab when we want to go somewhere. Yeah, right.
    The problem with this article is that it ignores human ingenuity and technical progress. We have a long track record of developing/finding alternatives when a key material becomes scarce. Indeed one of the concerns for EV owners is that better battery technology will emerge, undermining the residual values of their “old tech” vehicles.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Jit, from your link –

    “Paul Atherley, the company’s chairman, who is also chairing a scheme to establish lithium refining in Teesside, says Pensana’s feedstock will come from a mine in Longonjo, western Angola. He is also seeking to source lithium from Australia for his other company.

    “What we’re arguing is that Australia, and South America and Africa should be doing what they are good at, which is mining and the extraction phase. And the processing should be done in Europe, in UK chemical parks hooked up to offshore wind, so we create these independent and sustainable supply chains, independent of China, so we can be absolutely sure about how it’s mined and how it’s processed.”

    contrast the above link topic to – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-56023895
    “Cumbria coal mine: Will it threaten the UK’s climate targets? Published 8 December 2022”

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