24/09/2020

The list of critical raw materials is growing

Jani Kiuru, Chief Technology Officer at Finnish Minerals Group, sheds light on the challenges and opportunities related to a secure supply of minerals and metals.

THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION published the list of critical raw materials (CRMs) at the beginning of September. Updated every three years, the EU 2020 list of CRMs has four new critical raw materials, including lithium. The Commission also notes that it will be closely monitoring nickel, which is used in lithium-ion batteries, for example.

Those raw materials that are most important economically to the EU and have a high risk associated with their supply are defined as critical raw materials. They are essential to industry and ecosystem integrity. They also play a key role in the implementation of the European Green Deal.

Based on current information, the demand for lithium in EU is predicted to increase 18-fold by 2030 and 60-fold by 2050 compared to the present supply. The corresponding predictions for cobalt are 5-fold and 15-fold, respectively. While these predictions are only based on the growth in demand for electric car batteries and energy storage, demand is also affected for other products such as computers, phones, robots and drones.

Ten times more the current amounts of aluminium, nickel and manganese will be needed in order to limit global warming to no more than 2°C above the pre-industrial temperatures.

Seeking new technologies for mining operations

According to Finnish Minerals Group’s CTO Jani Kiuru, space programmes to extract minerals will not be a reality anytime soon, so solutions will have to be searched widely on Earth.

“While other measures are also necessary, new mines will need to be opened in Europe as well. In addition, we need new technologies so that we can greatly improve the recovery of minerals. Sensible ways for substitution of minerals should also be introduced. And no matter how tired we are of hearing this, we need to recycle more,” says Kiuru.

Establishing a mine is a billion-euro investment, and large deposits are needed to attract such investments. The operating costs of mines are also high. These factors combined are a hindrance to mining projects.

“The aim of technological development in Europe and Finland is to find ways of maximising the recovery of metals from ore and of minimising the load on the environment. Developing new technologies for cutting down the investment and operating costs of mines would enable utilising small deposits, helping to gradually change the nature of mining,” says Kiuru.

He notes that technological development is already taking place in Finland under various European initiatives, such as the European Battery Alliance. Led by Aalto University, BATCircle brings together companies, universities, research institutions and cities to collaborate in developing mining industry processes.

Current metal recycling rates are low

According to Kiuru, not much of the demand for materials is currently covered by metals recycling. Based on information from the European Commission, 22 per cent of cobalt and 13 per cent of magnesium are recycled in Europe, while the recycling rates of other critical metals range from 0 to 2 per cent.

Kiuru sees that the recycling rates will not rise for as long as it is cheaper to extract metals from mines.

“So far, global competition in the mining industry has meant that any raw materials produced by any means anywhere in the world have competed on prices against raw materials that have been produced responsibly. In the future, however, there may well be separate markets for those who have used responsible production methods and those who have not, and these two markets will have different price levels. This may also contribute to the building of the circular economy here in Europe,” says Kiuru.

Alongside change, new technologies will need to be developed for enabling and driving the circular economy.

How much will hydrogen cars affect the demand for metals?

The current global transition from internal combustion engine powered cars to electric cars is helping us to reduce emissions from transport. Furthermore, lithium-ion batteries for electric cars are being developed at a rapid pace. Driven by resource efficiency, the goal is to achieve higher performance with fewer materials.

Hydrogen cars are also expected to join electric cars and public transport in this development. On the other hand, metals and minerals are also needed to make hydrogen cars.

“Hydrogen cars have an electric motor that uses permanent magnets, and metals are needed to make permanent magnet motors. Hydrogen-powered cars have a fuel cell in which chemical energy of hydrogen and oxygen are converted into electricity, and the fuel cells are made from materials such as cobalt, nickel, copper, graphite, platinum and palladium. Like other electric motor vehicles, a hydrogen car also has a small battery to power its onboard electric motor in combination with a fuel cell,” says Kiuru.

 

The mission of Finnish Minerals Group is to responsibly maximise the value of Finnish minerals. We manage the State’s mining industry shareholdings and strive to develop the Finnish value chain of lithium-ion batteries. In addition, we are engaged in long-term technology development of the mining and battery industry. Through our work, we contribute to Europe moving towards electric transport and a more sustainable future. www.mineralsgroup.fi