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How Supplies of Essential Clean Energy Elements Can Evolve Towards More Sustainable Models

Critical Minerals, Part 2:

Circular principles, Human Rights Due Diligence, and innovative methods are in the works; better impact assessment will be needed

photo of male worker standing in mining pit

As discussed in Part 1, many technologies that are important for decarbonizing the world’s energy and transport systems and for advanced electronics and lighting require specialized materials derived from scarce minerals. These materials are often obtained through channels that pose high financial and environmental costs and social concerns.

In this Part 2, we’ll look more closely at how supply chains for these “critical minerals” might evolve, and at the increasing importance of analytical methods (such as LCA and related approaches) that can provide insight into possible ways forward as production volumes are scaled up to support the fight against climate change.

Supply, Demand, and Innovative Thinking

The law of supply and demand is central to understanding mineral criticality. As explained in Part 1, analysts foresee a 4-6X increase in demand by 2040 for materials like lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite (needed for batteries and other clean-energy applications) and rare earth elements (REEs), which are used in permanent magnets for wind turbines and electric vehicles. Supplies of these and other minerals are limited and often geographically restricted. Moreover, obtaining them will likely grow more difficult over time because mining organizations typically pursue the best and most-accessible deposits first.

The imperative demand for critical minerals is prompting innovative thinking and new ideas and proposals about many aspects of the supply chain. While this is encouraging, there are also indications that traditional LCA and other existing methods will need to evolve in order to make effective assessments of novel solutions. Many considerations are involved, from the selection of impact categories to geopolitical concerns, and even basic questions about what factors are being assessed.

On a strategic level, circular economy principles could be applied to critical minerals. A recent World Economic Forum commentary proposed improved capabilities for materials reuse and remanufacturing, along with a shift towards greater sharing of products like cars and electronics and increased emphasis on product durability. It acknowledged, however, that these measures “require significant effort and changes to our current way of life.”

Other potential steps include greater corporate attention to sourcing of materials through alternative (non-primary) channels and closed-loop supply chains, though these also represent significant paradigm shifts. Some optimistic observers, such as Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, note that good engineering is uncovering alternatives, like cobalt-free batteries, non-REE or magnet-free motors, and greater leverage of software and electronic control systems. “Accessible alternatives to ‘critical materials’ can make excellent EV batteries, solar cells, and wind turbines,” says Lovins. “Brains outpace mines.”

Addressing Human Rights Issues in Mining

While those types of workarounds will become increasingly appealing, mines will likely be with us for the foreseeable future. One possible way of reducing the many issues associated with them is increased Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence (HREDD). The European Union is currently considering requiring large European companies and those doing significant business in Europe to “assess their actual and potential human rights and environmental impacts throughout their operations and down their supply chains and to take action to prevent, mitigate, and remedy identified human rights and environmental harms.” 

As this recent GreenBiz commentary noted, wide-ranging adoption of human rights due diligence (HRDD) among renewable energy companies could incentivize companies, suppliers, and end users to take positive action not just on publicized impacts, such as explored in this NY Times article on child labor in Congolese cobalt mines or the ravaging by nickel mining of a coastal community in Indonesia as featured in a recent award winning documentary but also on other impacts that are just as severe but are simply less well known. “With this backdrop, the renewable energy sector can adopt comprehensive HRDD practices to further understand risks, and shape the human rights risk profile of each raw material and sourcing location, and advance research into less understood materials (vanadium and indium).”

On a more tactical level, innovative alternatives to traditional mine-based supply options are being explored. Research has shown, for example, that small quantities of REEs are present in coal and coal ash, and the US Department of Energy is sponsoring research into their extraction from coal, coal ash, and mine wastes.

Likewise, developers of geothermal energy production are positing the feasibility of extracting lithium from natural underground hot brine sources, like those found beneath California’s Salton Sea. These pilot-stage technologies are also being funded by the Department of Energy and the potential is significant: “At full production capacity, the 11 existing power plants near the Salton Sea, which generate about 432 megawatts of electricity, could also produce about 20,000 metric tons of lithium metal per year. The annual market value of this metal would be over $5 billion at current prices,” note researchers Bryant Jones and Michael McKibben.

Deep-sea Mining: High Potential, Strong Concerns

A more revolutionary and far more controversial avenue is deep-sea mining, which represents a potentially major increase in critical mineral resources and an end run around their geographical concentration. In a 2022 white paper, the World Economic Forum took a broad look at the many unanswered questions and knowledge and consensus gaps associated with this type of extraction and noted, “the potential effects that are currently the least predictable are the ones that most directly affect people and planet.” It recommended greatly increased collaboration among civil-society organizations, experts, end-use companies, deep-sea mining contractors, and other stakeholder groups.

That deliberative process, however, is running up against a 2023 deadline created when the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru declared intent in July 2021 to start seabed mining, invoking a clause in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that set a two-year deadline for finalization of regulations. While international talks are underway, a recent session ended in stalemate, raising the possibility of mining commencing without any regulation according to a recent article in the Guardian.

The Need for Better Assessments

These diverse approaches share a need for robust impact assessment data that can enable informed decision-making at all levels, from fishing villages to the UN, and at corporations and organizations of every size and description. This has sparked a boom in related research. Public agencies in the US and Europe are actively researching and reporting on strategic economic and geopolitical aspects of the situation, while many in the sustainability community are leveraging LCA and other techniques to identify problem areas and assess the effectiveness of alternatives.

There have been so many studies of critical minerals that critical reviews of their methods and findings have started to appear.

A high-level takeaway from all this is that the critical minerals situation is complex at almost every stage, from mining to processing to use and re-use of the materials involved, and that all the sustainability community’s skill and adaptability will be needed to generate trustworthy data. Take, for example, the methods review mentioned above, in which a multidisciplinary 62-member Life Cycle Initiative task force evaluated 33 published methods. The report notes that while it’s generally established that LCA techniques can assess environmental impacts of mineral extraction in categories like climate change and acidification, there is still substantial debate over assessment of other mineral-related impacts.

Activities like lithium extraction at a cluster of geothermal power plants, processing of billions of tons of coal ash in pursuit of REEs, and widespread seabed mining have wildly different scales and types of potential impacts and benefits. And because the effort involved in implementing circular-economy measures is so great, it’s imperative to choose ones that truly advance sustainability.