Critical minerals: why their scarcity puts industrial production around the world at risk

The shortage of metals worries the industry as a whole

At the end of the 19th century, a worldwide search for oil began. It began to be called ‘the black gold’ because of the coveted wells that contained it. This substance had become essential for the most cutting-edge technologies at that time: it was used as fuel, which drastically changed transport and soon revolutionized the industry with plastic, synthetic fibers and other derivatives of this substance.

Over time, international politics and economics changed: countries with oil wells became rich and there have even been some wars since then for control of areas with that wealth in the subsoil. Now we may find ourselves facing a similar situation that will change the international scene or even jeopardize the transition to less polluting energy sources.

From mobile phones to wind turbines

The world is trying to reduce its dependence on fossil energy sources and fight against the greenhouse effect. This means that you need new raw materials for the manufacture of devices that reduce carbon emissions. Telephones, touch screens, lasers, aerospace components, batteries to store solar energy in order to use it at night, wind turbines… Much of the technology that is being developed to make this transition uses minerals that are very scarce on the planet as raw materials. : nickel, lithium, cobalt… about thirty chemical elements that have been called critical minerals, translation of the English ‘critical minerals’. If it fails even for a short time or even the supply is interrupted for years, it would not be possible to manufacture essential devices for the change.

In English ‘critical’ has the meaning of fundamental or indispensable, and it has been translated into Spanish as it is, referring both to the fact that they are essential to produce energy in a cleaner way, and to the level of risk that the chain could be suspended supply of these minerals for different reasons. Among them the fact that there are few sources of these minerals because the mines belong to an oligopoly or because they come from a few countries.

In addition, the political stability of the exporting countries is important. This would be the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has more than half of the world’s reserves of cobalt (a mineral used for alloys used in the production of aircraft and in batteries for electric cars) and has suffered several war conflicts since which gained independence from Belgium in the mid-20th century.

There is one more matter of concern in relation to critical minerals and that is that an ever-increasing consumption requires increasing the exploitation of these resources, with what this entails greater energy expenditure, environmental pollution and the violation of human rights in some cases due to the conditions of the miners.

A necessary increase in production

An example of the relevance of critical minerals are the materials needed to build a modern windmill with a 3 MW turbine: 1,200 tons of concrete, 355 tons of steel, 4.7 tons of copper, 3 aluminum and 2 of rare earths, in addition to other materials such as zinc and molybdenum. This is indicated by the world bank report ‘Minerals for climate action: The intensive use of minerals in the transition to clean energy’, where it is also stated that the production of minerals such as graphite, lithium or cobalt could experience a 500% increase between 2020 and 2050.

The list of critical minerals varies in different regions, depending on their accessibility. While for the United States and Europe it includes rare earths (a group of 17 chemical elements including scandium, yttrium and the 15 elements of the lanthanide group), it is not in China, which is one of the world’s leading producers of rare earths. Not only does it produce them, but it also processes what comes from other areas: in 2019 China refined almost 90% of the rare earths of the entire world production, in addition to 35% of the nickel and between 50 and 70% of the lithium and the cobalt. Among the countries that supply the European Union is China itself at the head of a list that also includes the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Brazil, South Africa, Russia and Rwanda.

Search for new sources

These risks have led governments and supranational institutions to investigate ways to increase and diversify the production of these resources, thus avoiding the possibility that the transition to less polluting energies will be slowed down by the scarcity of raw materials.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), made up of 30 countries (including Spain), has established six recommendations: invest in diversifying the supply of minerals, invest in R&D to use materials more efficiently and find substitute materials, increase recycling and carry it out more efficiently, improve the resilience of supply chains to be able to respond to possible supply interruptions, incentivize production and strengthen international cooperation between producers and consumers.

Some countries have been looking for new sources of critical minerals. For example, in Norway, a report prepared by different geological services from Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Greenland shows that a good part of these minerals can be found in the Nordic bedrock. Once it is clear where there may be more deposits, two other problems arise: it is estimated that it takes 16 years to extract the resources and this process is harmful to the environment. That is why there are voices of experts who urge finding new sources as soon as possible, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected the world supply of wheat, wood, paper, aluminum or palladium, as well as scandium and titanium, strategic minerals included. on the list of the European Union.

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