The Unseen Minerals Conundrum of the Clean Energy Transition

The desired growth in renewable energy production capacity simply cannot be met with current technology and annual metal production. 

If we fail to act, the most likely outcome from this increased demand will be steeply rising commodity prices that will undermine the very energy transition we all wish for.

Kevin O'Kane

Having worked in the mining industry for over a decade, it always seems alien to me that most people outside of it are blindly unaware of the conundrum we face as we pursue the goal of a net-zero future by mid-century.

Of course, we all realize that there is an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions to address global warming and limit the rise in temperatures to 1.5 degrees celsius. According to the International Energy Agency’s Net-Zero by 2050 report, the energy sector is the source of around three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions today and holds the key to averting the worst effects of climate change.

The drive for net-zero is also complemented by the energy security debate that recent events in the world have shown is an urgent imperative. Updates flow almost daily about Europes reliance on foreign oil and gas,  serving to accelerate the shift to alternative and more localized sources of energy such as wind and solar. 

For us to achieve the stated goal, however, requires nothing less than a complete transformation of how we produce, transport and consume energy. In other words, it relies on us moving away from a fossil fuel-based energy system to a materials-based, cleaner source of energy that involves generating energy from wind turbines, solar farms and battery-based sources of power.

Clean Energy Transition Conundrum

However, in our haste to make this transition we are overlooking the implications it has. Namely, these new energy sources place a far greater demand on minerals (including many different types of metals) than their fossil field predecessors ever did. And the conundrum is, that we simply don’t have enough of them to meet the anticipated demand.

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While the clean energy transition is a must for the world, I believe the following three steps require urgent action to ensure we deliver the minerals required to make it a reality.

  1. Combine the usage of technologies like AI, advanced chemistry, and inverse production processes for recycling and new processes to maximize net metal production from existing assets across the entire value chain (mining, refining, recycling).
  2. Traceability, labelling and certification of product provenance in terms of metals and material composition based on automated data collection, analysis and updates are critical to building trust across the new materials value-chain where end users are proactive, data-driven and voicing their opinions.
  3. Policy and regulatory environments across all economies need to factor in a progressive framework to introduce the energy transition in a more realistic timescale while ensuring the production capacity of both primary and secondary raw materials (minerals) required are scaled up to ensure there is no hyperinflation of the underlying commodity pricing while the end-users have sufficient data to support their buying decisions.

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