January 26, 2022
Given its centrality to the energy transition, the expansion of the electric vehicle market will require significant use of raw materials, particularly in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries.
This growth must be accompanied by special attention to these metals, which are in high demand worldwide and represent a major strategic challenge.
Improving how these metals are extracted to make them ethical and sustainable and the search for European sovereignty are the two major challenges that need to be overcome for this energy transition to succeed.
How can we obtain ethical and sustainable raw materials and move towards European sovereignty?
Photo credit: Adrian Wojcik
Several raw materials are needed to manufacture a battery, primarily nickel, copper, cobalt, lithium, manganese and graphite.
These metals are found all over the world:
The social, health and safety conditions of mines in certain regions of the world where strategic metals are extracted are the subject of much attention. Mining activities that do not apply the rules and practices of sustainable development can result in significant environmental impacts, including soil and groundwater pollution.
“Artisanal mining” is a practice of the populations living near the mines. Individuals, often ill-equipped, extract metals by their own means to resell them. This practice is unregulated and puts people’s health and safety at risk. It typically represents a small fraction of the minerals mined and sold. The challenge is to identify and isolate the minerals that come from these practices.
The second issue with these raw materials is related to sovereignty. Currently, Europe provides less than 1% of the raw materials for lithium batteries, according to German MEP Hildegard Bentele. To succeed in its energy transition, Europe is heavily dependent on outside countries, particularly China.
China is now very strongly positioned worldwide in the extraction and refining of these metals, which are needed to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles. It has invested heavily, both in supply and processing, in many mines on the African continent.
The growth of the electric vehicle market necessarily requires more raw material resources, particularly cobalt, nickel, and lithium.
According to the Sustainable Development Scenario of the IEA (International Energy Agency), by 2040 the demand for cobalt will increase 21-fold, nickel 19-fold and lithium 42-fold for the manufacture of batteries, especially those used in electric vehicles.
As such, there is a risk of a mismatch between the expansion of mining and the needs of the energy transition.
However, the IEA states that there is no global scarcity of resources and that the earth’s crust contains more than enough minerals to meet the demand for electric vehicles.
Therefore, how can we remove these obstacles and guarantee the success of the energy transition?
ISO certifications will allow for better regulation of extraction practices. The ISO subcommittee on “Mine closure and reclamation management (ISO/TC 82/CS 7)” has just been established so that international standards can limit the damage caused by mining activities.
According to the ISO, “[The mining industry] must, however, satisfy environmental requirements, and indiscriminate exploitation of limited resources cannot be considered at the expense of future generations. This is why the mining industry has a big role to play in ensuring sustainable development.”
Traceability of raw materials: Traceability requirements need to be strengthened, and players such as automakers will have a role to play in this process in order to tell where the metals come from and where they are produced. This traceability will accelerate the process of researching ethics in battery manufacturing.
The Critical Minerals Association (CMA) is an organisation dedicated to ensuring safe and sustainable critical mineral supply chains. The CMA issues reports such as status updates on sustainable mining, in terms of carbon footprint and monitoring. They also wrote a white paper: A wish list of social measures and traceability methods to be applied to mining.
The ERMA (European Raw Materials Alliance): As part of the 3 September 2020 Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials, the ERMA was created with the objective of fostering resilient value chains for industrial ecosystems in the European Union. To reduce the dependence on these raw materials and thus strengthen the national supply in accordance with the international obligations of the European Union.
Independent associations will monitor and follow the mines and in particular “conflict dipping”, which refers to conflicts of interest linked to the extraction of metals. They carry out audits of the mines and list their illegal practices such as weapons financing, child labour, etc.
Verkor was present at the French interministerial meeting of 10 January 2022 to actively participate in and contribute to Philippe Varin’s mission to supply industry with strategic raw materials.
The French government is determined to monitor and improve the resilience of value chains and in particular to secure the supply of strategic raw materials.
In order to do so, the Government has chosen a number of strategies. France is working on the creation of a “strategic metals investment fund for the energy transition” to guarantee access and supply for French and European manufacturers. A critical metals observatory will be created and an interministerial delegate responsible for the security of supply of strategic metals will be appointed. The report calls for planning research and skills in this area with a technology roadmap for upcoming generations of batteries. Finally, the concept of “responsible mining” will be translated into a certifiable standard or label.
Calls for projects (CFPs) have also been launched to reduce dependence on third countries by developing strategic sectors for France and Europe. Agnès Pannier-Runacher (Minister Delegate for Industry) said: “Our industry is still too dependent on non-European supply chains for critical metals. While these resources are finite and global competition is strong, this is a critical time to secure our supplies of the mineral resources that will be essential to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.”
As part of the France 2030 plan, €1 billion will be allocated to strengthening the reliability of metal supply chains.
Faced with these strategic challenges, mining companies are developing innovative practices and processes for a sustainable, responsible industry.
German MEP Hildegard Bentele notes that, “Today there are good examples of sustainable mining practices. If we do it in Europe, it will be done with a very high level of standards and technologies. It will be cleaner than in China or in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
In a setting like this one, start-ups have their place to propose and develop innovative technologies that will offer alternatives in terms of access to the resource, sovereignty, and especially the environmental impact. A company like Vulcan, for example, is aiming for carbon-neutral lithium extraction from geothermal sources in the Upper Rhine Plain in Europe.
In order not to deplete these reserves, mining companies need to fully integrate the product’s LCA (Life Cycle Assessment). The LCA measures the environmental impact of the production, use, and disposal of products and services in accordance with ISO 14040/44 international standards.
In addition, mining sites are becoming more responsible. They are using solar energy for their operations, installing catenaries to electrify the dumpers transporting the ore (e.g. the Boliden operator in an iron mine in Sweden), and using new processes to save water and reduce waste.
France is home to resources that include ore, industrial minerals, and metals such as lead, zinc, copper and lithium (particularly in the Massif Central), a potential that is still undervalued.
In Europe, lithium resources are also found in Serbia, Portugal, Finland, Spain and Austria.
This potential of more than 200,000 tons of lithium metal could make France and Europe self-sufficient if they implement ore treatment processes.
In order to overcome the shortages and tensions related to the supply of certain metals, battery recycling is another solution will play an important role. Indeed, in the long term, recycling will be an increasingly important factor in the supply of the metals needed to manufacture electric batteries.
The future will be a mix between metals extracted from the soil and recycled raw materials. The European Union has issued a draft regulation on the levels of recycled metals in a battery.
By 2030, batteries could be required to contain at least 4% recycled lithium, and by 2035 this rate would increase to 10%. For nickel, the requirement would be 4% by 2030 and 12% by 2035.
The European Commission’s report, “Implementation of the Strategic Action Plan on Batteries”, states that “The contribution from recycling of electric vehicle batteries to meeting the needs of cobalt within the EU could reach around 10% in 2030.”
The energy transition is underway and will require the development of new resources to secure the supply of certain raw materials, including those used in electric car batteries. Solutions are already being developed to produce sustainable, responsible raw materials and move towards European independence in the production of these strategic metals.
Verkor is pursuing a clean, local technological future, and is committed to a green approach throughout the battery’s life cycle, from choosing components right through to recycling. The objective is to ensure traceability of the performance of each material and also to analyse the life cycle of the batteries.
Verkor does everything possible to promote sustainable development while remaining competitive.