On June 30 Mike Buxton closed off the Future Resources lecture series with a talk about the role of the mining industry in sourcing metals for the energy transition.
In his talk he addressed that the energy transition is metal intensive. The key messages from the talk was that the movement towards sustainable energy is consuming more and more unsustainable metals. Within a couple of years we will not be able to meet the demand with the forecasted production. The mismatch between the output of mines and the demand of metals in growing. The demand of metals is not only growing in terms of weight, also in terms of the diversity of materials, specifically exotic materials. The scale of the mines in which these metals are present is relatively small. In addition, the mining industry consumes 11% of global energy demand, this will increase when the demand for metals for clean energy increase (with 36%). In essence: we are getting better at generating electricity through clean energy, but we are consuming more and more metals to do so.
Copper: the biggest problem
One of the biggest problems emerging is around copper. Copper is a key enabler: It is the best conductor of energy that is a non-precious metal. If you would recycle all refined copper from 2000 BC till now it would still be not enough to satisfy the forecasted demand of the upcoming 20-30 years. We kept up with demand by finding new deposits, but the copper content decreases (from a few percent to 0.5 percent). Technology can help make more copper available. However, in short term we can keep up, however, not in the long term.
Solutions to the current mining problem include inter alia focusing on recycling. However this is currently more expensive than mining new materials. Recycling rates are low and the metals are scattered across the earth. Hence, recycling cannot replace the demand for virgin materials. Another solution is deep sea mining. This is a technology talked about since the 1970's. While this is technically feasible, the potential environmental impact is currently a red flag: we do not know enough about its effects on deep sea life. The recovery rate might be very low. Lastly, extra terrestrial mining (e.g., asteroid mining). For this technology, which is not practically feasible yet, big investments should be made to further develop this technology. The vision for the near future is to shift the extraction and processing paradigm to no open pit mining anymore.
The most important take aways from the talk were:
- Redefine what is ore and waste
- Increase recycling
- Improve environmental regulations