The Fuels-to-Materials Transition


The new world we are building liberates us in many ways from the constraints and boundaries of our long histories. Renewable energy frees us from the heavy necessity of extracting fuels, ever more and more fuels that end up polluting the atmosphere with ever more greenhouse gases (GHGs) Relax! Leave it in the ground! The sun and the wind will free us! It’s an added benefit that far more countries have some admixture of renewable resources than countries endowed with fossil fuels, promising a more equitable world.

Though still inadequate to meet all our needs, renewable energy can be made super-efficient by the use of digital technologies, a vast array of sensors, and machines that adapt and learn, precisely matching supply and demand for energy with near zero waste. The decentralized and multi-sourced energy system of the future will use intelligent technologies to coordinate the solar, hydrogen, wind, geothermal, and bioenergy sources with ever-fluctuating energy demand. The digital transition also frees us in many ways from the tedious constraints of the material world. Many pioneers of this field even promote living in the virtual world as our future.

These changes are profound. Yet this perception of freedom from past physical constraints is, in part, an illusion. For both renewable energies and digital technologies have a physical base, a base that requires minerals and other resources in greater variety and amounts than the systems they replace. The infrastructure of these twin transitions requires a greater number of metals, many of which are rare earth elements (REE), with spectacular performance capabilities. These elements are not really rare, but they are so sparsely dispersed in the earth’s crust as to effectively render them rare.  Occasionally they are found in sufficient concentrations to render mining them less costly. It took time for markets and governments to realize the magnitude of their scarcity and the enormity of their importance. China grasped this early, and is now in a leading position geopolitically as the nearly monopolistic supplier of many rare earth elements.

The decarbonization of our economies, and therefore, the future of the planet is predicated upon massive increases in energy efficiency and renewable energies. Our old dependence on oil is in jeopardy of being substituted by the new dependence of critical raw materials (CRMs). We are entering what some call the Fuels-to-Materials transition. Governments have been waking up to this supply vulnerability that threatens our ability to decarbonize our future energy system.

What are these CRMs? There are varying lists depending upon the object of concern. All of them include the REEs, this last line of 15 elements in the periodic table plus Scandium and Yttrium. One of their main applications are permanent magnets made of Neodymium, Iron, and Boron (NIB) that have ten times the energy density of an old-fashioned iron magnet. This means that for the same power of attraction, they have one tenth the volume and weight.

For the energy transition, these magnets are essential to both electric vehicles (EVs) and wind turbines. For the EV, the magnets help transform the electric energy from the battery to the kinetic energy that turns the wheels. For wind turbines, they perform this function in reverse. They take the energy from the wind that turns the blades into electricity. Smaller NIB magnets have uses across the board in modern technologies.

 According to the International Energy Agency, an electric vehicle (EV) requires six times the amount of minerals as a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) car, and a wider variety. The battery alone requires lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite to achieve excellent performance, longevity, and energy density. 

Governments around the globe are realizing that their geopolitical and climate security is based on controlling their own mineral resources, giving rise to resource nationalism. States with near monopolies on rare earth elements, such as China, can block their export, upsetting global supply chains. Emerging countries, such as Argentina, South Africa, Kazakhstan, and India are recognizing the value of their mineral treasures, and deciding to keep them for their own development. Many countries, from Canada to Indonesia, are prohibiting foreign companies from taking over their mines. Critical raw materials, critical to modern technology, therefore, have become strategic raw materials, strategic to the modern geopolitical system.

Now that governments are taking the reins, what measures and policies are they taking to ensure access and sustainability of these resources?

One of the first measures they are taking is to define a list of critical materials. In the United States, the Energy Act of 2020 defines critical minerals as any “non-fuel mineral, element, substance, or material that the Secretary of Energy determines:

  1. Has a high risk of supply-chain disruption; and
  2. Serves an essential function in one or more energy technologies, including technologies that produce, transmit, store, or conserve energy.”

The 2023 list now numbers 50 elements, up from the 2018 list of 35. It includes household names such as cobalt, graphite, lithium, nickel, platinum, zinc, and the more exotic dysprosium, erbium, tellurium, terbium, samarium, and yttrium.

Secondly, governments can map their resources. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has tasked and funded the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to determine the amount and spread of these resources with the Earth Mapping Resource Initiative, covering both the resources still underground and those present in mining wastes. This latter is particularly important since the REEs, often ignored in the past and present in such weak concentrations, are often mixed with more well-known minerals.

Mining wastes then becomes our third way to address CMR scarcity. Already taken from the ground and partly processed, these wastes can be further processed to extract the rare minerals. An example is mining company Rio Tinto’s circular economy project in Canada to extract scandium from titanium dioxide waste streams. Scandium is useful when mixed with aluminum to make an improved alloy. And aluminum is crucial to the energy transition for light-weighting. Such an approach is much cheaper, resource-efficient, and less polluting than opening a new mine. With volatile commodities markets often influenced by monopolistic players, such an economic advantage is attractive to companies. Environmentalists also can appreciate the second use of a brown field for such a dirty operation.

Rio Tinto is one of the initial investors in the “Regeneration” project, which takes legacy mines and eventually restores the land for the communities around them. According to their website, “Regeneration is needed because the World Bank estimates that over three billion tons of minerals will be needed to deploy the wind, solar, and geothermal power, as well as energy storage, required to achieve a climate target of 2°C.”

Another circular economy approach to increase CRM supply is to recycle them. Currently, less than 1% of REE are recycled. Usually, the electronic waste that contains them is not even collected. This is changing. The EU, for example, has new recycling targets that will increase over time. New technologies will help. Apple has created a robot that can extract the REEs from iPhones. Research is finding substitutes for some of the steps to separate and purify the REEs, such as employing bacteria or copper salts rather than hydrochloric acid. These paths are less toxic and less energy-intensive but still need more work. They are essential, however, since urban mining will be a growing source of raw materials, especially REEs, in the future. The more these toxic minerals are recycled, the less they will pollute our environment, risking becoming locked into the food chain and bioaccumulating.

Finally, from a geopolitical perspective, the US and the EU want to build up the mining, refining, processing, and manufacturing capacity of the essential minerals of the energy transition in their own countries. Re-shoring them means we will not be subject to supply blockages and price manipulation.

The EU and the US are developing the strategies we need to meet the Fuels-to-Materials transition. The circular economy perspective of collecting precious waste from tailings to end-of-life goods, re-use, repair, and refurbishment all make both economic and environmental good sense.