Green new deals and natural resources

by Chris Bertram on June 11, 2019

I’m nearly through reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible at the moment, and very good it is too. For those who don’t know, the main part of Kingsolver’s novel is set in the Congo during the period comprising independence in 1960 and the murder of its first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, on 17 January 1961 at the hands of Katangan “rebels” backed by Belgium and the US. And DR Congo (sometime Zaire) has been pretty continuously violent and unstable ever since. With its origins in King Leopold’s extractive private state (rubber), Congo has been coveted and plundered for the sake of its natural resources ever since. At the time of the Katanga crisis copper was the thing. But now what was previously a little-wanted by-product of copper extraction, cobalt, is in heavy demand because of its use in batteries.

My attention was caught yesterday by a press release from the UK’s Natural History Museum, authored by a group of British geoscientists:

The letter explains that to meet UK electric car targets for 2050 we would need to produce just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production.

A friend alerted me to a piece by Asad Rehman of War on Want, provocatively entitled The ‘green new deal’ supported by Ocasio-Cortez and Corbyn is just a new form of colonialism which makes the point:

The demand for renewable energy and storage technologies will far exceed the reserves for cobalt, lithium and nickel. In the case of cobalt, of which 58 per cent is currently mined in the DR of Congo, it has helped fuel a conflict that has blighted the lives of millions, led to the contamination of air, water and soil, and left the mining area as one of the top 10 most polluted places in the world.

People who are optimistic about the possibilities of decarbonizing without major disruption to Western ways of life and standards of living are often enthusiastic about new technologies, battery developments etc. I’ll include CT’s John Quiggin in that (see John’s piece from CT Can we get to 350ppm? Yes we can from 2017). John tells me he’s sceptical about claims that we are about to run out of some scare resource. Maybe he’s right about that and more exploration will reveal big reserves of copper and cobalt in other places. But even if he is, we still have to get that stuff out of the ground, and that’s predictably bad for local environments and their people, and in the short to medium term it may yet be further bad news for the people of DR Congo who have already endured seventy plus plus years as a “free” country (and 135 years since Leopold set up in business) in conditions of violence and exploitation, whilst already wealthy northerners get all the benefits.

{ 60 comments }

1

Michael Sheldrick 06.11.19 at 7:25 am

All good points, but I believe that recycling a large fraction of these rare minerals is quite feasible. We need to stop exploiting these countries.

2

Haftime 06.11.19 at 7:56 am

I think the NHM press release strikes the right tone, though there are questions about comparing stocks and flows: cars last longer than a year on average, so the amount of Co per year required would be significantly lowered. As Michael points out, recycling (which is an active topic) can hopefully reduce this further.

It’s also worth pointing out that one reason to believe John that we won’t run out of elements like Co and Te in the short term is that Co and Te are not mined themselves, but are byproducts of Ni and Au mining, so there is potential for expansion.

The Independent article agglomerates a lot of statistics, which make the important point that we should care about the effects of resource extraction, but the connection to the Green New Deals is perhaps less clear. This article draws heavily from a recent UN report, which argues I think a distinct case to the article: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/27517/GRO_2019.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y
A few examples: ‘Resource extraction is responsible for 50 per cent of global emissions’ – this includes food production, which is not really a green new deal issue. If you drill down into the minerals and metals mining (which is the focus of the article), you’ll find that the major impacts of mining are primarily iron/steel and aluminium production*, rather than the elements highlighted as being important for the new deal [Fig 3.13], though there are specific issues with copper and precious metal mining. Another to point out here is that most of these environment impacts are in China, rather than sub-saharan Africa [Fig 3.15], which again doesn’t particularly suit a green new deal based narrative.

I guess my overall view is that although resource extraction has severe consequences, the few elements focussed on are not to be the biggest factor.

3

Thomas 06.11.19 at 8:03 am

What about fuel cells? Surely they are the one way of storing energy that doesn’t rely on massive extractive industries, and yet seemingly little attention has been paid to them recently. Why the comparative lack of interest?

4

Tim Worstall 06.11.19 at 8:17 am

“John tells me he’s sceptical about claims that we are about to run out of some scare resource. Maybe he’s right about that and more exploration will reveal big reserves of copper and cobalt in other places.”

JQ is right. Sorta.

The usual mistake here is to think that “mineral reserves” are what we’ve got available to use. This is not so, reserves are what we have prepared for us to use. A colloquial description would be “working stock of extant mines”. OK, not very colloquial that but.

A “mineral resource” is the next step out. This again is not “what is available to be used”. This is the stuff that we’re really pretty certain can be turned into a mineral reserve if we applied ourselves to the process of proving it to be so. We have to drill it, sample, at least test process it, delineate the extent of the deposit, then prove that we can extract using current technology, at current prices, and make a profit. That’s just what the actual definition of a mineral reserve is.

It really is true that a mineral reserve is something created by human beings. Of course the ore body isn’t, but those lists of how many reserves of what are lists of things people have proven to this legal standard. And it is a legal standard – a mining company can’t claim a reserve unless it meets that standard above. All of the listings are composed of what people claim to have to that legal standard.

To give an example, and one of the reasons Simon won the bet with Ehrlich. In 1980 copper mineral reserves were all of copper sulfide deposits. Because that’s the technology we had, a pyrometallurgical one (stick it in a furnace and melt it out) to produce copper. Only some pile of “copper something” that we could actually produce copper from was a reserve.

In 1982 we started to apply the SW-EX process to copper extraction – dissolve in acid then get the metal using electric current. We’d previously used this for uranium, adapted it for copper. The really big distinction being that this worked on copper oxide deposits, not just copper sulfide ones. That means that every pile of copper oxide around the world just moved from not being a source of copper to being a source of copper. We’ve changed copper oxide mountains into possibly a mineral resource and if we apply ourselves and do the detailed work, into mineral reserves.

A mineral reserve simply isn’t, in any form whatsoever, a listing of what it is that we are going to be able to use of some metal.

This, from the US Geological Survey, is the document needed.

https://prd-wret.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/assets/palladium/production/atoms/files/mcs2019_all.pdf

For each – and it includes all industrially important minerals each with a two page report – mineral people look at “world mine production and reserves” in the second page. As above that’s the amount that’s been prepared to be used, the output from and stock at current mines.

It’s the next paragraph, “world resources” which is more useful in these sorts of wonderings. That’s the amount we’re really pretty sure we can use if only we put our minds to it. And that’s all before we go wandering off to see if there’s more out there. Or some other process we can use to extract.

It’s worth reading the entry on lithium, something mentioned in the original at the top. Precisely because we’re more interested in it than we used to be more effort is being put into looking for the stuff. Meaning that resources and reserves are both rising as we use ever more.

“But even if he is, we still have to get that stuff out of the ground, and that’s predictably bad for local environments and their people, and in the short to medium term it may yet be further bad news for the people of DR Congo who have already endured seventy plus plus years as a “free” country (and 135 years since Leopold set up in business) in conditions of violence and exploitation, whilst already wealthy northerners get all the benefits.”

The resource rents of mineral deposits should be – righteously – taxed until the pips squeak. The best way to do that being to have large multinationals doing the mining – people with reputations and stock market listings to protect.

5

derrida derider 06.11.19 at 8:22 am

The reason proven reserves of cobalt are limited is that no-one has found it worthwhile looking for more ore at current prices, nor to think about extracting it from less rich ores (known but currently uneconomic reserves are not included in “proven reserves”) . Neither lithium nor cobalt is uncommon in the earth’s crust, so I doubt shortages of them will slow down renewables for very long. Rare earths like neodymium might be slightly more problematic, but not much – despite the name the relevant ones are not really all that rare.

The market lovers are actually right here – the price mechanism works really well for this sort of thing.

6

reason 06.11.19 at 8:31 am

CB
Surely, the fate of the Congo is not exclusively a function of it being resource rich – but a function of it being resource rich with a dysfunctional and corrupt state. The resources may make the wars worse (because they enable the participants to buy weapons) but bad government is not a necessary function of being rich in resources (ask Norway).

7

Gareth Wilson 06.11.19 at 8:33 am

The more climate change is talked up as an existential threat to the survival of humanity, the less I care about what happens to the Congolese in the process of preventing it.

8

Chris Bertram 06.11.19 at 8:42 am

@reason: Norway had functioning and strong institutions in the first place, and that enabled them to benefit from their resource wealth when it was discovered; any chance Congo had to build decent institutions was strangled at birth because of the need of foreigners to get their hands on their resources.

@Gareth Wilson – you disgust me. Go comment somewhere else.

9

Tim Worstall 06.11.19 at 9:31 am

“elements like Co and Te in the short term is that Co and Te are not mined themselves but are byproducts of Ni and Au mining,”

Te is Cu I think? Copper slimes?

10

MisterMr 06.11.19 at 10:26 am

“[…] and that’s predictably bad for local environments and their people, and in the short to medium term it may yet be further bad news for the people of DR Congo who have already endured seventy plus plus years as a “free” country (and 135 years since Leopold set up in business) in conditions of violence and exploitation, whilst already wealthy northerners get all the benefits.” OP

In itself the fact that Congo has a lot of a scarce resource is good for the inhabitants of Congo, IF they can sell it to westerners at a high price.

We westerners (and likely others) are asses who prefer to steal and plunder than to pay something for a high price, but this isn’t really a problem of green technology, it’s a problem of us being asses.

11

Haftime 06.11.19 at 12:00 pm

Tim, you’re right. I was thinking of some of the gold telluride ores, but they are not widely used.

12

John Quiggin 06.11.19 at 12:08 pm

I’m confident that the same kind of exercise could be done if you predicted what would be needed to meet projected demand for smart phones or TVs. The problem isn’t technology specific, it’s that we use lots of different materials. Given a more or less random distribution around the world, lots of the resources are going to be found most conveniently in Sub-Saharan Africa and other poor places.

Resources in such places are nearly always a curse, essentially because securing control over the output (for example, by being part of a military regime or an effective insurgency) yields better returns than doing things that are socially productive, like being a doctor or building a mobile phone network.

The real problem here isn’t specific resources, it’s poverty and inequality. As the Norway example suggests, if Africa were democratic and prosperous, we’d have no trouble getting all the cobalt (etc) we need.

13

Louis N. Proyect 06.11.19 at 12:10 pm

The most precious resource was nominally free in history but we are running out of it. As it becomes more and more unavailable, it will become more expensive to produce until nations will go to war in order to maintain access to it. Some analysts believe that it explains the violence in the Middle East.

https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/blogs/earthmatters/2014/11/05/earths-disapearing-groundwater/

14

Chris Armstrong 06.11.19 at 1:15 pm

Good piece, Chris. Just to throw one more element into the mix – based on one of my current interests, as you know. Here’s a striking fact: The amount of cobalt, thallium, nickel and yttrium contained in one place on earth – the ‘Clarion-Clipperton Zone’ under the Northeast Pacific – outstrips all known ‘terrestrial’ reserves combined. That’s why the seabed might well be the new resource frontier, if the technology can be made cost-effective. If it can, the impacts on global resource politics could be dramatic. The idea of being able to source these elements without having to deal with organised labour, indigenous movements, and environmental NGOs is a tech billionaire’s dream.

15

Omega Centauri 06.11.19 at 1:17 pm

There is an unstated assumption, and that is that the material needs of the new green high tech stuff remain approximately the same as today. I remember ten to twelve years back when photovoltaics were widely considered to be unscalable, because they relied of Silver, which was in limited supply. Well Silver was being used because at that stage of development and pricing, it was the most economic solution. Now current PV uses little Silver and PV has already scaled far beyond the supposed limit. I expect batteries to follow a similar trajectory. The technological decisions and the material demands depend on projected cost/availability over the next few years, and as those numbers change, the material demands will too. We can’t reliably predict which elements will be the bottlenecks decades from now.

16

Brett 06.11.19 at 2:34 pm

@15

We could definitely have some breakthroughs in battery technology, although what I’ve read from battery researchers suggests that they’re pessimistic about any big breakthroughs versus marginal improvements. Just finding batteries that are almost as good as Lithium-Ion but made of cheaper elements would be a big improvement.

@3

It’s the cost versus electric vehicles. Getting hydrogen for fuel cells either requires an environmentally unfriendly method of getting it from natural gas, or cracking water with electrolysis (the latter consuming a fair amount of energy). The overall system is much less cost-effective than electric battery vehicles. There’s a really good video on it here.

17

Zamfir 06.11.19 at 3:28 pm

Some of those advances are already calculated in here The article in the OP assumes “811 NMC” chemistry, with very little cobalt. That is expected to be rolled out in the coming years, but it is better than currently on the market.

18

TM 06.11.19 at 4:11 pm

4: “The resource rents of mineral deposits should be – righteously – taxed until the pips squeak. The best way to do that being to have large multinationals doing the mining – people with reputations and stock market listings to protect.”

10: “We westerners (and likely others) are asses who prefer to steal and plunder than to pay something for a high price, but this isn’t really a problem of green technology, it’s a problem of us being asses.”

A significant portion of global raw materials trade goes through Switzerland – not physically of course but financially. CT readers might be interested to know that the Swiss Coalition for Corporate Justice (SCCJ) is active working for laws that would makes “First World” businesses accountable for their conduct in places like Congo.

“Swiss based companies have made and continue to make headlines for human rights abuses and environmental damages committed through their global activities. This is why, on April 21st 2015, a broad coalition of Swiss civil society organizations working in human rights, development and environmental protection launched the Responsible Business Initiative. The initiative aims at introducing a biding framework to protect human rights and the environment abroad.”

https://corporatejustice.ch/

The initiative proposes a constitutional amendment that would hold “Companies […] liable for damage caused by companies under their con-trol where they have, in the course of business, committed violations of inter-nationally recognized human rights or international environmental standards”. It is currently being debated in Parliament and the outcome could be a compromise proposal adopted by Parliament, or a referendum in which the chances of success are intact. The business side is quite concerned about this possibility. Besides, there is a lot of publicity, media coverage, and political debate on this important topic.

https://corporatejustice.ch/about-the-initiative/

19

Matt 06.11.19 at 6:39 pm

I second what Omega Centauri says about the changing composition of material inputs. For example, lithium iron phosphate is a completely cobalt-free battery chemistry. LFP batteries are already used for grid storage and electric buses. They don’t have as much energy density as batteries including cobalt, but less constrained raw materials also make it more feasible to just manufacture more of the lower-energy-density type.

Most of the incremental copper demand assumed to come from aggressive renewable-led decarbonization is embedded in electrical cabling, not motors or generators. That cable demand for copper can easily be switched to higher gauge aluminum based cable in most cases. Ongoing increases in system voltage and watts-per-unit also means that large scale solar and wind projects keep using less cabling-per-watt over time, independent of the conductive metal chosen.

20

Brett 06.11.19 at 7:34 pm

“Under their control” is going to be heavily litigated, because it creates a huge open-ended liability concern that would tend to choke off the business entirely.

21

Scott P. 06.11.19 at 9:38 pm

“John tells me he’s sceptical about claims that we are about to run out of some scare resource. Maybe he’s right about that and more exploration will reveal big reserves of copper and cobalt in other places.”

For example, near-Earth asteroids.

22

Tim Worstall 06.12.19 at 6:04 am

“For example, near-Earth asteroids.”

Space mining for stuff we’re going to use on Earth has a certain problem. It’s not going to be worth it for low value per kg materials. No point in bringing iron down. High value per kg, say platinum group metals – one type of asteroid being rich in them – look much more attractive. But then, their high value is a result of scarcity, and if we’re to bring such material down in the right sort of volume to pay the overheads of the process, how much scarcity and thus value will remain?

This isn’t confined to space mining. There are several companies out there jostling for finance to extract a particular rare earth. The process itself benefiting from a certain economy of scale. The calculations requiring a, say, 80 tonne a year output at current sorts of prices. But global usage is about 15 tonnes a year. It’s difficult to see one of these proposed plants coming online and prices remaining where they are. But the financing assumptions require that prices do stay up even while production volume soars.

Obviously new production processes do get used, new materials come onto the market in volume. But I’m not sure I can see a way around this problem in space mining.

Of materials to use up in space, yes, it’s obviously worthwhile, not having to drag stuff up out of the gravity well.

23

faustusnotes 06.12.19 at 7:01 am

I don’t like this conflict between resource extraction and corruption on the one hand, and the solution to the world’s environmental problems on the other. It should be the case that if the world desperately needs these materials to prevent catastrophe, then DRC should be able to get rich. The fact that it can’t is a political choice not a fact of nature and all political choices can be changed. Indeed, it seems like the people pushing for things like the Green New Deal are going to be much better at controlling the behavior of the extractive industries in countries like DRC than the people denying climate change.

The same people pushing for radical action on climate change are also pushing for radical action on tax havens, environmental regulation and the proper treatment of transnational extractive industries. I think it’s good to remind everyone involved of the importance of using the response to global warming to reduce global inequality, but we shouldn’t think it’s inevitable that responding to one requires worsening the other.

24

MFB 06.12.19 at 7:41 am

faustusnotes, while you are right in saying that the decision to immiserate weak and poor nations is a political decision, the problem is that it’s a very easy decision to take (as opposed to immiserating nations which can defend themselves, or immiserating powerful people at home).

Also, I doubt that the Green New Deal people are terribly good at controlling the behaviour of the extractive industries in countries like DRC. If you recall, the Congolese war at the turn of the century happened during the Clinton-Blair era, who are kind of the godfathers of contemporary Western liberalism, and I’ve always suspected that they were up to their armpits in that particular shenanigan which promoted most of the problems the DRC currently faces.

Going back to the start, has nobody noticed that the article talking about how a certain action actually requires more materials than the world actually produces at the moment, is an action referring only to one industry in only one country? That is, in order to produce not just electric cars but a wholly electric transport and manufacturing infrastructure, not only in the UK but all over the planet, would require a couple of orders of magnitude more raw materials than that?

If this is really the case, it’s hard to believe that the seabed and the tech industry’s tweaks are going to solve the problem.

25

Hidari 06.12.19 at 7:45 am

‘From space, the Bayan Obo mine in China, where 70 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals are extracted and refined, almost looks like a painting. The paisleys of the radioactive tailings ponds, miles long, concentrate the hidden colors of the earth: mineral aquamarines and ochres of the sort a painter might employ to flatter the rulers of a dying empire.

To meet the demands of the Green New Deal, which proposes to convert the US economy to zero emissions, renewable power by 2030, there will be a lot more of these mines gouged into the crust of the earth. That’s because nearly every renewable energy source depends upon non-renewable and frequently hard-to-access minerals: solar panels use indium, turbines use neodymium, batteries use lithium, and all require kilotons of steel, tin, silver, and copper. The renewable-energy supply chain is a complicated hopscotch around the periodic table and around the world. To make a high-capacity solar panel, one might need copper (atomic number 29) from Chile, indium (49) from Australia, gallium (31) from China, and selenium (34) from Germany. Many of the most efficient, direct-drive wind turbines require a couple pounds of the rare-earth metal neodymium, and there’s 140 pounds of lithium in each Tesla….

It’s not clear we can even get enough of this stuff out of the ground, however, given the timeframe. Zero-emissions 2030 would mean mines producing now, not in five or ten years. The race to bring new supply online is likely to be ugly, in more ways than one, as slipshod producers scramble to cash in on the price bonanza, cutting every corner and setting up mines that are dangerous, unhealthy, and not particularly green. Mines require a massive outlay of investment up front, and they typically feature low return on investment, except during the sort of commodity boom we can expect a Green New Deal to produce. It can be a decade or more before the sources are developed, and another decade before they turn a profit.

Nor is it clear how much the fruits of these mines will help us decarbonize, if energy use keeps climbing. Just because a United States encrusted in solar panels releases no greenhouse gases, that doesn’t mean its technologies are carbon neutral. It takes energy to get those minerals out of the ground, energy to shape them into batteries and photovoltaic solar panels and giant rotors for windmills, energy to dispose of them when they wear out. Mines are worked, primarily, by gas-burning vehicles. The container ships that cross the world’s seas bearing the good freight of renewables burn so much fuel they are responsible for 3 percent of planetary emissions. Electric, battery-driven motors for construction equipment and container ships are barely in the prototype stage. And what kind of massive battery would you need to get a container ship across the Pacific? Maybe a small nuclear reactor would be best?

Counting emissions within national boundaries, in other words, is like counting calories but only during breakfast and lunch. If going clean in the US makes other places dirtier, then you’ve got to add that to the ledger. The carbon sums are sure to be lower than they would be otherwise, but the reductions might not be as robust as thought, especially if producers desperate to cash in on the renewable jackpot do things as cheaply and quickly as possible, which for now means fossil fuels. On the other side, environmental remediation is costly in every way. Want to clean up those tailings ponds, bury the waste deep underground, keep the water table from being poisoned? You’re going to need motors and you’re probably going to burn oil.’

Etc etc. etc.

The fact is, that in the absence of (currently non-existent) ‘carbon capture technologies’ there is only way to solve the increasingly serious problem of climate change: consume less (aggregate) and produce less (aggregate).

You may well ask: and how is this compatible with the growth orientated system of extraction we call ‘capitalism’ which we have had since arguably the 16th century, and unarguably since the late 18th century?

The simple answer is: it’s not.

All serious discussion must begin by acknowledging these facts. Or else it won’t be 4.5 degrees of warming we’ll be looking at (which will be bad enough) but 7 or 8, which will be species destroying.

https://communemag.com/between-the-devil-and-the-green-new-deal/

26

John Quiggin 06.12.19 at 10:53 am

“Going back to the start, has nobody noticed that the article talking about how a certain action actually requires more materials than the world actually produces at the moment, is an action referring only to one industry in only one country?”

I was struck by this, but a closer reading left me thinking the claim was that meeting all the needs of the UK for the entire transition would require more than *one year’s* output of these materials. If we treat the UK as being 2 per cent of the problem, that suggests we need more than 50 years worth of current output. So, to meet this in 25 years, while serving existing needs , with current technology, would require a tripling of output. That’s challenging, but the discussion above suggests that after taking of substitution, untapped reserves, and technological improvements, it ought to be feasible. That’s if we can overcome more immediate problems like Trumpist resistance to doing anything.

27

nastywoman 06.12.19 at 11:02 am

@
”Counting emissions within national boundaries, in other words, is like counting calories but only during breakfast and lunch”.

This argument can’t be accepted – as it is far too close to the argument of very confused Americans who say:

”Who me ”going green or clean?” – No way – if ”them Chinese” don’t do it first”!

And if the rest of the argument – that there aren’t enough ”resources” is used as an argument against ”going green” – it’s NOT acceptable either.

Or as some of the commenters so rightly said:
”There is an unstated assumption, and that is that the material needs of the new green high tech stuff remain approximately the same as today”.

This assumption is completely wrong – as my parents never ever would have thought – that in 2018 they would live in a completely ”Autarkes Haus”.

28

steven t johnson 06.12.19 at 11:46 am

A note on space resources of any kind: Any and every heavy cargo has a second use as a weapon of mass destruction. Robert Heinlein pointed this out over fifty years ago.

Carbon recapture is significantly overlooked. But the obstacles to the simplest kind, forests and coastal algae, are currently blocked by property rights, national sovereignty and the absence of profit. (The threat to coastal waters is largely pollution.) Carbon recapture at large fixed point emitters (power plants, gigantic container ships) would seem to be improbably technology…but how does hoping for a technological assist count as prudent planning? It’s not like planning to win the lottery, at least, but…

The attack on the new green deal as colonialist strikes me as just another conservative who likes to think of themselves as liberal, and not committed to a blind defense of the old (thus “left,”) doing ju jitsu. It’s like reactionaries moaning about “soft racism.” But there is also a strong sense the real objection is to spoiling nature, to changing things. Given that the world has changed even without people, that extensive changes in nature due to anthropogenic change are already inevitable, the implicit requirement that basically nothing really change is deeply reactionary. Just not gonna happen. Also, the real implication there is the problem the Earth is an overloaded lifeboat and the wreck of the Medusa is on us.

That said I agree that treating DR Congo like the coal fields of Appalachia is an appalling idea.

29

notGoodenough 06.12.19 at 11:56 am

Long time lurker, first time poster.

I am a little reluctant to post anything (still less to give any impression that I am an “expert”), but as someone who works in battery research it is possible I might provide a little insight, or at least a starting point. I should first offer the caveat that I don´t have a strong background in industrial commercialisation – rather I am more at the materials-development in a lab end. Secondly that I am very much not one of the giants in the field, just working the day-to-day side – albeit with 10+ years in the field.

Someone up-thread mentioned why not fuel cells? There is no reason exactly, but (and I speak as a battery-not-fuel-cell researcher) my very limited understanding is that you have some significant problems left in this area. Essentially these are to do with degradation and poisoning of the fuel-cell membrane (essentially the bit that divides the “cathode” and “anode”) which leads to big problems in cycle life. There are some other, minor issues such as needing to operate at elevated temperatures (leading to energy loss), etc. Also, research tends to be cyclical, and after being “burned” by investing in these some decades ago, I think batteries grew out of the fall-out. This is definitely not my field, so I am happy to be corrected by someone who knows more than me (which should be rather easy!).

Regarding batteries. Why is there still high cobalt use? Well, as far as I can tell this essentially has a lot to do with the battery field being very resistant to change. Many of the batteries in mobile devices (at least from one very large manufacturer that I´m aware of) still use LiCoO2 rather than the far superior LiN1/3Mn1/3Co1/3O2. As far as I can tell, this is because the optimisation is “done” for LiCoO2, and to change over would be more trouble than it is worth (from the economic perspective). I don´t agree with this, of course, but that´s capitalism for you.

However, using LiNMC use would only reduce Co by 2/3. What is next? Well, there are some potential routes to eliminating Co on the horizon (which is, in fact, a priority for us lab-monkeys). There are such options as lithium sulphur (which has issues of self-polymerisation of sulphur leading to short battery life, but companies like Oxis seem to be making big strides in addressing this) and lithium-oxygen (which in my rather biased opinion is a bit of a pipe-dream, and only still significant because some big names keep pushing it).

Why stick with lithium, though? We have options such as primary Zn-air (non-rechargeable, but super-high energy density) and sodium-ion (eh..not as good performances as lithium in terms of capacity, but *some* systems have high voltages and so can compensate by having high energy densities).

My impression of the current state of the field is that people are still trying to develop a one-size-fits-all approach. To be honest, my (very, very limited perspective) is that as we go forward in the battery field, we will have to look to develop a “toolkit” of systems, all with their own advantages and disadvantages, and then companies will have to use the most suitable one for their application (i.e. increased specialisation). Of course, this isn´t so great in terms of profits (decreased market-share), so I don´t know how popular it will be…

After working in Li-ion for a bit, my current area of interest is polyanionic materials and prussian blue/white. Although the capacities aren´t great, and the low conductivity means you have to what some conductive carbon in, these are often water processable (meaning reduced nasty organic solvents, like NMP). Are these THE future..?..Well, probably not, but I think they could be *part* of the future (like I say, increased specialisation).

Anyway, enough of my blathering – back to the lab for me!

Hopefully this is of interest/use – I definitely don´t characterise myself as an expert, or one of the visionary leaders in the field, but I am happy to try to answer things if I know anything about it….

30

Another Nick 06.12.19 at 2:37 pm

notGoodenough, I’d be interested in your thoughts on Lithium Iron, as per Matt’s post above.

IIRC from reading up a few years ago, the benefits were better thermal stability, so safer to use in homes and hospitals etc, and much longer cycle life than lithium ion. And already in current production, not a pipe dream.

Are there downsides we should be aware of, other than taking up a bit more room?

31

Brett 06.12.19 at 2:40 pm

@28

That’s some good info, thanks for dropping in. I was hoping there was a battery researcher following the blog.

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notGoodenough 06.12.19 at 4:41 pm

Thank you to everyone for the warm welcome – I am very much obliged to you.

So, to (hopefully) address @29 Another Nick’s question and provide a bit of a case study in why things are rarely simple in the battery world:

Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) is a polyanionic cathode material. It has some excellent properties – a high capacity, excellent cyclability (how many charges and discharges can it do before it stops working), and very good rate capability (how rapidly can you charge and discharge). For this reason it is, as far as I am aware, already commercialised (I believe a certain brand of power drill uses LFP exclusively, for example). It also nicely gets shot of the cobalt issue (and also nickel, which is another terrible element to use but seems to get a bit of a pass).

However, as with all things in batteries, there are challenges.

The first intrinsic science issue is that LFP, like most polyanionics (that I am aware of) suffers from low electrical conductivity. Since you want to make all your material particles “connect” to the circuit (or they won’t be active and will just be “dead space”) you have to make them conductive.

This is possible by a) making the particles small and b) carbon coating them. Carbon coating requires some fancy chemistry or a second process – both of which add cost and make it more difficult to commercially exploit. Making the particles small creates a whole range of problems, but the main ones are that small particles are:

1) intrinsically les safe (more energy in a smaller packed volume means these are one step closer to being an uncontrolled fire, even given the safer thermal profile)

2) much harder to synthesise in large scales (well, technically it is the filtration and handling steps, but this post is long and rambling enough already)

3) much harder to process into electrodes (they have a tendency to gum up all the slurry casting equipment)

None of this is impossible to deal with, but it all adds expense, time, etc. If I recall correctly the most successful manufacturer of LFP (who I probably shouldn’t name for legal reasons) has had a lot of cash-flow problems, despite providing a good product.

Another issue is a non-science one. I won’t go in to details (again due to legal reasons, though it should be fairly google-able) but the development of LFP has a pretty dark and sordid side, which culminated in legal battles and police being called to stand guard over a lab. It is probably one of the most unbelievable examples of bad behaviour I’m aware of in recent research– and I have seen a fair amount. For that reason, many people have been reluctant to touch it.

Finally, another thing to be aware of is the end-user requirement. Making a battery a bit bigger and heavier isn’t a problem for, say, a drill (and they can be recharged quickly enough), but in an iphone (where the drain is ridiculous) you quickly run into issues of scale.

Of course, this is just the cathode. I could (and possibly, assuming people don’t get too bored, will) go on at length about the issues of the complexity of the battery system, how we are hitting a brick wall on electrolytes, and how another potentially big break through is in Silicon-carbon composite anodes….but all this is a story for another day!

Apologies in advance if this is a bit of a mess. I’m afraid not being a science communicator, and lacking talking to people outside the field, has probably made it difficult for me to avoid slipping into jargon and assuming knowledge – please just let me know and (with the kind forebearance and tolerance of the owners of this blog) I’ll expand on any points people might find interesting.

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Area Man 06.12.19 at 5:45 pm

The basic problem with fuel cells is that they use hydrogen as an energy storage medium, and hydrogen is a terrible storage medium. Everything about it is wrong. It has extremely poor energy density, high reactivity, significant conversion losses, and it leaks out of everything. Oh, and it can explode.

Fuel cells were being flirted with back when Li-ion technology was still newish and expensive, but the extremely rapid decline in prices has made it clear that batteries are the winner.

@16:

We could definitely have some breakthroughs in battery technology, although what I’ve read from battery researchers suggests that they’re pessimistic about any big breakthroughs versus marginal improvements.

From what I understand, it’s not so much that there aren’t any big breakthroughs out there, but that the economy of scale for Li-ion has caused prices to drop so quickly that other chemistries can’t really compete. So research is more focused on marginal improvements in Li-ion rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. This will all change if the inputs for Li-ion increase drastically in price.

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Matt 06.12.19 at 7:22 pm

To make a high-capacity solar panel, one might need copper (atomic number 29) from Chile, indium (49) from Australia, gallium (31) from China, and selenium (34) from Germany. Many of the most efficient, direct-drive wind turbines require a couple pounds of the rare-earth metal neodymium, and there’s 140 pounds of lithium in each Tesla….

The quoted article contains many half-truths and some outright nonsense. Since there are no citations for the numbers I’m not sure where the author acquired his mistakes in the first place. I’ve seen nearly identical arguments from fossil industry shills — “renewable energy requires a lot of mining too, so really it’s not any greener.”

The amount of lithium in a Tesla is much closer to 14 pounds than 140.

The only solar cell type that requires copper, indium, gallium, and selenium is called copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS). This type accounted for less than 1% of the solar capacity manufactured in 2018. It is not a particularly “high capacity” type — the highest wattage solar panels and the most efficient solar panels are made from crystalline silicon. CIGS is relegated to niche uses — especially lightweight panels for fragile rooftops, and small flexible panels for portable device chargers. Solar panels based on crystalline silicon have 95%+ market share and do not require indium, gallium, or selenium.

Or take this bit:

To replace current US energy consumption with renewables, you’d need to devote at least 25–50 percent of the US landmass to solar, wind, and biofuels, according to the estimates made by Vaclav Smil, the grand doyen of energy studies.

That casual “and biofuels” accounts for the vast majority of area, because growing crops for biofuels has pathetically low areal energy productivity. To replace all American primary energy consumption with solar electricity, joule-for-joule, would take more like 4% of the area of the continental United States if you assume that none of that solar hardware is installed over existing rooftops or parking lots. Merely replacing the corn acreage currently used to make ethanol with solar farms would be enough to generate about 200% of current annual electricity demand in the United States. (Not that a real solar transition is going to be based on replanting Iowa with solar farms instead of corn farms and then building a radiating transmission system connecting every other state with it.)

Growing biomass is absurdly inefficient and too expensive to displace fossil energy at scale. I suppose that biofuels seemed more (relatively speaking) practical back when solar PV was less efficient and much more expensive, e.g. 10 years and more ago. I think they’re going to keep shambling around slowly, pathetic and undead, because farming and (to a lesser extent) forestry communities now depend on the incentives. The graph I linked above shows that 38% of US corn went to ethanol last year.

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Chris Bertram 06.13.19 at 6:38 am

@Matt … “the quoted article” being the one quoted by @Hidari and not either of the ones linked to in the OP. (Just so people are clear)

36

Another Nick 06.13.19 at 10:14 am

Thanks notGoodenough, that’s very informative.

“the most successful manufacturer of LFP (who I probably shouldn’t name for legal reasons) has had a lot of cash-flow problems, despite providing a good product”

Not sure which manufacturer you’re referring to, but I’m guessing it can’t be BYD, 25% owned by Berkshire Hathaway?

The largest and most profitable EV and energy storage manufacturer in the world doesn’t appear to be having any issues, cash flow or otherwise, with its fleet of cars and buses running predominantly on cobalt-free lithium iron batteries?

37

Tim Worstall 06.13.19 at 12:18 pm

Also:

“gallium (31) from China”

Can come from China, doesn’t have to. The basic production unit is a Bayer Process plant, what we use to turn bauxite into alumina. Stick a doohickey on the side of one of those plants and extract the gallium from the solution. Near a trivial alteration to an extant plant – by no means all, or even a majority, currently have them.

38

Brett 06.13.19 at 2:27 pm

@34 Matt

Depending on how carbon restrictions play out, the main buyers for biofuel in the future will probably be airlines. There’s just no good replacement for jet fuel right now, so it’s either going to have to be aviation biofuel or some type of carbon-air-capture-to-fuel service.

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equalitus 06.13.19 at 2:46 pm

While exponential growth has been slowing down, it is the main long term problem which will also stop eventually, lest we cook ourselves even without a BOE [barrel of oil equivalence] of hydrocarbon burning.
After growth has been slowing even further, the “package composition” of a GND is the supply side part of increasing energy and ensuring that energy production will be sustainable and stable for hundred of years, perhaps even longer.

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Matt 06.13.19 at 4:53 pm

Depending on how carbon restrictions play out, the main buyers for biofuel in the future will probably be airlines. There’s just no good replacement for jet fuel right now, so it’s either going to have to be aviation biofuel or some type of carbon-air-capture-to-fuel service.

I agree that airliners are going to mostly run on liquid fuels rather than electricity in my lifetime. There are some other applications where electrification seems far from practical, like long distance cargo shipping. I tend to think that carbon-neutral fuels for these applications will have little to no “bio” about them by the time they become common. For simple molecules like fuels, there is no advantage to the sometimes-astonishing chemical selectivity of biological processes, and biology tends to be less robust than conventional industrial chemistry.

In the bio-light case, I mean that people might gasify rice hulls / wood scraps / bagasse etc. and convert it to liquid fuels with a generous addition of electrolytic hydrogen. The biomass would function more as a source of carbon atoms than a source of fuel energy. The bio-none case would be to use electrolytic hydrogen plus CO2 to synthesize fuels, with no fuel value derived from the original biomass. This would also describe the case where e.g. a CO2 stream is sourced as byproduct from a brewery.

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notGoodenough 06.13.19 at 5:09 pm

@36 Another Nick
Glad you are finding it interesting!

You presume correctly. So, I should be clear that I don’t think it is the sole reason, only a contributing factor, but A123 went belly-up in 2012. Now, of course, it has been bought out (and if I understand correctly doing quite OK!). There are probably a lot of reasons this happened (and many we’ll never know about), but I think part of it is the intrinsic complexity of developing new battery tech.

To my understanding, it isn’t just that developing a new tech takes time and money, it is also the unforeseen problems. I think I should try and give a brief taste of why this is the case.

[b]So, why is developing new batteries hard? [/b]

Talking about intercalation systems only, so as not to make this too complex, here is a simplistic guide to a “typical” Li-ion battery

A lithium-ion battery generally consists of a cathode, anode, and electrolyte. The lithium ions shuttle between the cathode and anode, and to conserve charge electrons move with them. The electrolyte conducts Li-ions, but not electrons, so these are “forced” to go through the outside circuit, and so do “work”.

A cathode typically consists of a) an active material (e.g. LiNMC) which does the lithium-ion containing; b) a conductive carbon additive (so the whole thing can be part of the circuit; c) a binder which glues everything together. These are mixed in a solvent (typically NMP, which is being phased out due to toxicity, etc.), then cast as a slurry on a current collector. The current collector is usually aluminium or copper (depending on whether it is stable againt corrosion at that voltage).

An anode typically consists of a) graphitic carbon and b) binder, also cast –using a solvent – on a current collector.

The electrolyte is typically a lithium salt (Li-PF6 or perchlorate) in organic solvents (carbonates usually) with an additive (FEC).

So, what’s the problem. Well, everything interacts with everything else, and it all impacts the electrochemistry. For example, the electrolyte interacts with the cathode active material, and form a surface electrolyte interphase (or SEI) layer. This is a complex mix of organic, inorganic, and organo-metallic compounds, and isn’t really well known to this day (to be clear, we have general principles of what make is better or worse, but not an in-depth knowledge). So, if you change your electrolyte, or change your active material, this can behave differently. If it does change the behaviour, you could be looking at re-optimising the system. Which means everything. And given the time involved, this is a big, big (several year-long) thing. Even how you make the slurry, what components you add in what sequence can have a big impact. These things are developed by process engineers at companies, who are never (and I mean NEVER) allowed to discuss this. This is because this optimisation is a big chunk of the company’s IP, so basically they will be labouring under NDAs the size of Yorkshire. Which isn’t very helpful if you are a researcher trying to understand all of this.

Intuitively, often (not always!) the more you change something, the more optimisation you may need to do. So, if you go from NMC 333 to 342, probably a lot of stuff will be the same. If you go from NMC to LFP…..

Well, first all your intercalation is at different voltages. Hypothetically (not in this case, but it may be for other systems) you could need to rework your anode and electrolyte to get something working (e.g. we have high-voltage cathode materials, but can’t use them because the electrolytes aren’t stable at those voltages yet).

Then, you intercalation is different (NMC is a 2d system, while LFP is 3d). The energetic of this change, so how does that effect your working limits, safety, etc.?

Then you need to look at the LFP vs. NMC. The particles are smaller, so have bigger surfaces, so now SEI plays a bigger role. Alternatively, because they are smaller, diffusion through the particle is less important, so rate of insertion/removal should be faster. Etc. etc. etc.

Then you need to make the material. What route you chose, what parameters, how pure you can make it, etc. all play a role.

Then you test it at the lab scale. Then optimise. Then re-optimise. Then re-re-optimise…….

Eventually you (maybe) have something which works well.

Congratulations, this is TRL 1-3. This is basically still at the fundamental research stage. Now comes some real pain.

Next you have to start testing in bigger cells (because that can change everything again). So you have to make enough material. But your optimised synthesis was for 1g, not the 100g you now need. So, back to the lab.

Let’s imagine you get past this. Now you start testing in a larger cell, typically 10g pouch cells. Then you have to optimise the half-cell chemistry (you aren’t even testing vs. anode, just against Li-metal).

Now you have to move to a full cell. So now you need an optimised anode. You were developing that at the same time as the cathode, right? And your teams were well synergised together to make sure there was feedback at each test? I certainly hope so, otherwise you will be having a bit of a change-of-underwear moment right now.

So, optimise the cathode casting and anode casting, now test a range of electrolytes, now optimise iteratively.

Congratulations, now you are at TRL 4/5.

Now you have an idea of how this cell is going to look. Now you can start looking into how the commercialisation is going to happen. So, TRL 6-9 is going to be developing things at larger scales, testing them to make sure the electrochemistry hasn’t changed, testing for safety, lifespan, stability vs. ambient conditions, etc.

Now you need to make the case there’s a good enough chance of commercial success to move to a pilot line. Then to an actual line.

Now you are making a battery. Well, probably cells, because a battery includes a huge amount of engineering (cooling systems, BMS, etc.). But at least your reaching potential marketplace.

Any change of anything can lead to dramatic changes in performance. Any transfer can fail for a huge number of reasons.

So, basically it is a big undertaking. ANL reckons – assuming everything goes perfectly – you are looking at about 10 years to go from TRL 1 to (6-9). This is a lot of money and time. And, of course, it relies on having people who have the big picture in mind. It is no use to develop a perfect active material, if you can’t make it at 10s kg scale at a minimum.

If this all sounds quite an undertaking, it is. Not many people try to cover more than TRL 1-3, and certainly very few research labs. Generally the amount and diversity of knowledge and equipment means you need a big centre with many people from man fields. It is hard to convince a government to fund this – because very little output will be research papers (the main measure of academic success) – and very few companies have the motivation/money.

[b] Why we don’t need to despair just yet [/b]

OK, it is a huge challenge. But one, at least in principle, which can be met. The big issue is you have to look at how you are approaching research, and make a centre that does it in a way which will lead to proper systems. You need a good team, well co-ordinated, working on all the problems at the same time, and sharing openly and honestly all the problems.

This can be done – there are a few centres in the world capable of this (in the UK not so much, but I won’t launch into a rant about that right now).

We also have a lot of options. And, potentially, problems in decreasing your energy density can be off-set by smarter engineering. Also, there are some potential game-changers which are on the horizon (admittedly far off, but less so than 1 years ago).

Solid-electrolytes, phase-change batteries, sodium-ion, etc. All of these could be big, but need time to bake, as it were.

So, if hypothetically-sufficiently-large-organisation (e.g. EU+US+PRC) turned around and said “right lads, no more Cobalt. We’re serious – you’ve got 5 years and then we’re pahsing it out, and outright banning it in 10” what would happen? Well, after you’ve provided CPR to all the CEOs and investors…My guess is we could do it. Don’t get me wrong, it wouldn’t be a cakewalk, but is would happen.

[b]So, can we be cautiously optimistic?[/b]

Actually, yes. Many of the big grants (e.g. yer typical multi-million euro-grant) now push for at least TRL 5 to be achieved – and yes, they will ask you to actually give details, not just a “well obviously it will be so brilliant commercial investors will manifest”.

This is nudging things to look more closely at how we are going to actually make a battery, and not just a nice study into Professor X’s great new idea for a Nature paper. (to be clear, I think fundamental research is great, has a place, and definitely bat for “not everything needs to be commercialised”, it is just that for the purposes of “how do we do x in batteries” we need to address the battery side).

In short, for a number of economic, political, and scientific reasons I think the challenges are big, but solvable, and that more pressure will be exerted in the years to come, pushing towards changes in the products.

Will it be enough, fast enough, good enough, etc.? That I don’t know. It isn’t beyond reasonable to say it could be – whether there will be sufficient funding, organisation, clarity of purpose…well, that depends on how optimistic you are.

Hope this is reasonably interesting/useful.

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Bruce Baugh 06.13.19 at 7:50 pm

@ notGoodenough, I’m appreciating your comments very much. Thank you for the effort of so much explaining.

43

Kiwanda 06.13.19 at 9:14 pm

From the letter to Baroness Brown, quoted in the linked article in OP:

If this analysis is extrapolated to the currently projected estimate of two billion cars worldwide, based on 2018 figures, annual production would have to increase for neodymium and dysprosium by 70%, copper output would need to more than double and cobalt output would need to increase at least three and a half times for the entire period from now until 2050 to satisfy the demand.

This is in reference to electric cars; Hidari mentions neodymium also for wind turbines.

I believe the main relevant use of neodymium and dysprosium is in permanent magnets, which are part of some electric motors and generators. However, permanent magnets based on such rare earths are used in only two percent of U.S. wind turbines, and moreover, as noted by Amory Lovins, “Everything that such permanent-magnet rotating machines do can also be done as well or better by two other kinds of motors that have no magnets but instead apply modern control software and power electronics made of silicon, the most abundant solid element on Earth.”

So I don’t think neodymium and dysprosium are a major concern for renewables (or electrification of transport and heating/cooling); there’s some hint of use in batteries, apparently not lithium-ion, though.

Cobalt might well be a problem for EV batteries, at least with respect to reducing its use to zero soon, but cost alone is driving reductions in its use (without relying on the consciences of corporations or consumers). For utility-scale batteries, another key technology for renewable energy, it looks like LFP batteries (zero cobalt) can be used.

The letter to Baroness Brown also mentions “high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium” for solar power; as implied by Matt, only silicon is really important for solar panels, and silicon is easy to come by.

Re lithium, while Asad Rehman says that “Some studies estimate that the demand for cobalt by 2050 will be 423 per cent of existing reserves, with lithium at 280 per cent and nickel at 136 per cent of current reserves”, he gives no sources, and multiple studies claim lithium won’t be a limiting factor for electric cars, at least.

44

hix 06.14.19 at 12:02 am

Now that topic could be an opportunity to google arcane technology stuff or just go with my rule of thumb which tends to work very well with such topics:

Anything that sounds like club of rome help basic resource x will be extinct in 30 years now we all need to go urban farming rethoric is usually quasi religious and wrong.

45

Another Nick 06.14.19 at 3:43 am

nGe, thanks again, that is all interesting. However, I think we’re talking at cross purposes at this stage.

The article referenced by the OP is about the uptake of EVs and stationary grid and home battery storage in coming decades.

The authors have vested interests in cobalt mining, and their primary concern is ‘where is all the cobalt going to come from’. Essentially, they would appear to be requesting more research funding from the Minister they’ve detailed their findings to.

However, the largest EV manufacturer in the world, BYD, is already using cobalt-free batteries in most of its models – and is churning out new vehicle models, not to mention new ‘giga’ battery factories at a significantly faster rate than Tesla.

Hence, the analysis and forecasts presented in the article referred to by the OP are incorrect. Or to be more generous, hinge entirely upon the following: “assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries”.

Granted, cobalt will quite possibly still be required in mobile phones and tablets for decades to come. Which has to do with market preferences for hi-res screens and ultra-portability etc.

But that is *not* what the article is about. It is about the uptake of EVs and stationary grid and home battery storage. Lithium iron was successfully commercialised and entered mass production for those purposes years ago.

It is far more common to find lithium iron deep cycle batteries selling at your local battery specialist or electronics retailer. Lithium Ion deep cycle batteries are virtually obsolete. LiFePO4 is the current standard.

46

Chris Bertram 06.14.19 at 6:36 am

@Another Nick The authors have vested interests in cobalt mining,

The authors are a group of academics with a research project on “the science needed to sustain the security of supply of strategic minerals in a changing environment.”

That doesn’t sound to me like a vested interest in cobalt mining in the ordinary connotation of those words.

47

Another Nick 06.14.19 at 9:10 am

Chris, I must admit I only looked up the lead author’s employment and research history. I’m not trying to disparage him, but his background speaks for itself. This is from a cobalt mining industry conference a month ago:

https://www.argusmedia.com/en/news/1904037-processing-alternatives-could-lift-cobalt-supply-ci

Somebody who is paid by mining companies to present, in his words: “new approaches to processing copper and nickel [to] increase cobalt recovery from mines”, has a vested interest in cobalt mining.

In my opinion, he should have disclosed this.

48

Tim Worstall 06.14.19 at 9:15 am

“Anything that sounds like club of rome help basic resource x will be extinct in 30 years now “

Quite. The basic complaint is that mineral reserves will be exhausted in 30 years. Which is true, they will be. Mineral reserves are always exhausted in 30 years*. Because mineral reserves are the minerals we’ve prepared to be used in the next 30 years. By and large and not exactly they’re the working stock of extant mines.

The Club of Rome then said that mineral resources were 10x reserves. Thus everything runs out in 200 to 300 years and all die. Except there is no relationship – absolutely none, nothing – between the amount that we have prepared for use in the near future and the amount that we can prepare for use in the further future.

*To a not very large level of accuracy

49

Hidari 06.14.19 at 5:12 pm

@34
In case you didn’t realise it, I didn’t write that article and sorta take it as read that any article published in a serious journal/magazine goes through a fact checker. If it doesn’t well, that’s bad, but hardly my fault.

But I notice that as the thread has developed and a lot of people react (either implicitly or explicitly) to the article I linked to a sort of ‘urban myth’ is developing (in real time!) in which it seems to be taken as read that that article is claiming that certain natural resources are limited and therefore we will run out of them.

But it self-evidently isn’t saying that at all, for the good reason that that’s a ridiculous thing to think (I’m old enough to remember peak oil…the fantasy of ‘overpopulation’ was another variation on the ‘limited resources’ meme).

What it’s saying is that in terms of climate change: ‘a miss is as good as a mile’. Yeah, sure, when everything is up and running and everything is carbon neutral…yes…things will be good. But until we reach that stage we live in a world that essentially runs on fossil fuels.

This is the dilemma: almost everything that we require to make our world free of fossil fuels requires….the use of fossil fuels. For example: rare earth elements, rare metals etc….regardless of how much, in fact, a Tesla uses, it’s an objective fact that these need to be gotten out of the Earth somehow, and then transferred to another location. And how is this done?

Big machines fuelled by petrol drive up, a lot of them. Then miners turn up. In cars. They dig, using petrol fuelled diggers and other machines. Then the materials are shipped on petrol using vans or lorries to petrol/diesel using ships or planes whereupon they are unpacked into petrol using trucks which take them to factories, (built by mainly fossil fuelled machines and vehicles) where…well you get the idea. Finally they are used to make Teslas (or whatever) which are transferred by showrooms (brightly lit, using mainly fossil-fuel produced electricity) by petrol using lorries and…well you get the rest of the idea.

Carbon dioxide is built into our civilisation. De-carbonising will not be easy: at all. The easiest way to do it is to leave the fossil fuels in the ground, which means:

consume less, build less, buy less.

At our current stage of technology that really is the only way forward (the future will be different of course. Unfortunately we don’t live in the future).

@48 The Club of Rome said absolutely nothing of the sort, as a quick look at its Wikipedia page will make clear. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Limits_to_Growth

(cf also this: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16058-prophesy-of-economic-collapse-coming-true/)

50

Matt 06.14.19 at 6:43 pm

When it comes to forecasting demand for metals there are some odd overlaps between different industry groups (sometimes with opposing goals — metal miners vs. coal miners), environmentalists, and anti-environmentalists.

Take for instance this recent slick infographic:

Visual Capitalist: Visualizing Copper’s Role in the Transition to Clean Energy

It’s courtesy of the Copper Development Association Inc., a trade group for copper producers. (The same infographic is sometimes credited to another promotional group, ThinkCopper).

I saw this infographic floating around in the past month on mining industry news sites as well as cleantech news sites. It has great production values, which makes it more likely to be shared and less likely to be questioned.

Consider a key statistic from that infographic: A three-megawatt wind turbine can contain up to 4.7 tons of copper with 53% of that demand coming from the cable and wiring, 24% from the turbine/power generation components, 4% from transformers, and 19% from turbine transformers.

Now let’s do a search for that “up to 4.7 tons of copper” phrase.

The top hit for me is an article titled “So You Want Wind Turbines But Don’t Want Copper Mines?” — a diatribe about how hippies shouldn’t get in the way of miners if they want renewable energy, and also how renewable energy is a bad idea in the first place.

The second hit is a promotional piece from the Hecla Mining Company titled “Why Silver & Copper,” making a case to prospective investors and the public at large why their proposal for a new mine should go forward. …a single wind turbine can contain 335 tons of steel and 4.7 tons of copper. Put simply, what we’ll mine from Rock Creek is what the world needs.

There’s another promotional piece titled “Minerals Help Us Meet Our Energy Needs” from the National Mining Association-sponsored site Minerals Make Life.

It’s cited again in a 2013 hippie punching article from the Heartland Institute titled “Environmentalists Want You Powerless.”

Just last month there was a story on CounterPunch titled “Renewable Energy: the Switch From Drill, Baby, Drill to Mine, Baby, Mine.” Where did the author learn the facts about how renewable energy requires a vast increase in metal mining, including copper? From a pamphlet supplied by an industry trade group called the Minerals Education coalition!

The earliest hit I can find for that 4.7 tons number is from a 2010 book titled “The Modern Energy Matchmaker: Connecting Investors with Entrepreneurs.” It says:

Did you know that a 3 megawatt wind turbine needs 335 tons of steel, 4.7 tons of copper, 1200 tons of concrete, 3 tons of rare Earth elements, and other resources? There are no citations for those numbers.

The fact that this “4.7 tons” figure has been floating around since at least 2010 is suspicious. No wind manufacturer in 2019 is selling the same turbine models that they offered in 2010 but the number stays the same. It’s also suspicious that these numbers come from mining trade groups and secondary citations of the mining groups, rather than actual wind turbine manufacturers. Did this “4.7 tons” number come from measurement in the first place? If so, when was the last time the measurement was repeated?

Despite the suspicious provenance and age of these numbers, they don’t die. They’re still uncritically repeated by groups from the Heartland Institute to CounterPunch. Different authors just have their own spin on what the numbers mean. (Heartland: “stick with good old fashioned fossil powered electricity.” CounterPunch: “we should use brooms instead of electric vacuum cleaners.”)

I have also seen miner self-promotion that ends up repeated uncritically for other materials like lithium, silver, and neodymium. To make even somewhat accurate demand estimates for specific metals in renewable energy requires a lot of effort. It basically requires either disassembling products and measuring them in a laboratory, or chasing a long chain of citations until you found someone who measured instead of citing a previous number or guessing.

Academic papers tend to be more careful about citing someone who actually measured, but they tend to overestimate material intensity due to the time lag between commercial introduction of new material thrifting measures and re-analysis. The consumption of purified silicon per watt in solar PV devices has dropped markedly over time, for example. This is an area where manufacturers are making progress with practically every new model that they release. Still, when I look at academic life cycle analyses of solar PV, the numbers they cite tend to lag 5 or more years behind the devices being installed today and thereby overestimate present and future material demand. Some make the problem even worse with meta-analyses incorporating numbers from 10+ years ago — in extreme cases, all the way back to the 1990s. Meta-analysis incorporating past results does not improve the error bars on estimating the material intensity of solar PV. It’s a bit like including 10 year old lightbulbs in a projection of future energy demands for lighting.

51

Kiwanda 06.14.19 at 9:02 pm

Again from that letter to Baroness Brown, quoted in the linked article in OP:

If this analysis is extrapolated to the currently projected estimate of two billion cars worldwide, based on 2018 figures, annual production would have to increase for neodymium and dysprosium by 70%, copper output would need to more than double and cobalt output would need to increase at least three and a half times for the entire period from now until 2050 to satisfy the demand.

Using the claim in the letter, and the USGS tables that Tim Worstall linked to, the necessary amount of copper for EV cars through 2050 from that letter would be 21000*2*31 tons, about 1.3 million. World reserves of copper are about currently 830000, not nearly enough for each this one use, but world resources of copper are 2.1 billion tons, 550 million in the U. S. alone. So there’s plenty of copper, if it can be mined economically and non-destructively.

For cobalt, the needed production is 31*3.5*140000, roughly 15 million, tons. World reserves are 6.9 million tons, but resources are 25 million tons, ignoring sea-floor deposits of 120 million tons. So, plenty of cobalt, up to cost (in many senses) of extraction.

Re lithium, the letter doesn’t specify how much is needed, but 2 billion Teslas would seem to need 14*2e9/2000 = 14 million tons of lithium. That’s current world reserves, but again, resources are about 62 million tons, plenty even if the estimate if off.

And: copper, cobalt, and even lithium have known or potential substitutes for renewable energy applications, and there’s at least some lead time to develop them.

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otpup 06.15.19 at 7:23 am

Iiuc, fuel cells have little to do with energy storage for the renewable grid, unless you are talking about using renewable electricity to produce hydrogen for storage, which I doubt could be very efficient, despite the efficiency of fuel cells utilizing hydrogen as a fuel source.
One thing that gets mentioned rarely is that a geographically dispersed and efficient grid doesn’t have as much of a storage problem, the production of electricity in the aggregate could be adequate. The big question mark would achieving transmissions efficiency high enough to make the aggregating work.

53

Hidari 06.15.19 at 7:35 am

In an unusual intervention from me, given that I’m normally trying to wrench comments threads off topic in order to talk about my own personal hobby horses, let’s try and get back on topic.

As Kiwanda correctly points out (and others have made more or less the same point) we are quite simply not going to run out of key resources, even rare ones (let alone common resources like copper). It is simply not going to happen, for the reasons he points out. (Changing topic slightly, this is another reason why John Quiggin’s point, made in previous posts, about why the ‘Golden Age of Spaceflight’ is over. As the world moves to the political right, private capital makes up the shortfall in terms of funding. But private capital will only become seriously involved in space if there’s profits to be made. But Kiwanda (and others’) point demonstrates that this will never happen. We will never run out of core natural resources to the extent that asteroid mining (etc.) becomes economically viable).

But that wasn’t actually the core point of the OP was it?

First there was my point made in @49: all mining operations, at present, use fossil fuels, and this is not likely to change anytime soon: the same goes for the transportation of key elements, commodities etc.

But another point is, to quote the OP: ‘we still have to get that stuff out of the ground, and that’s predictably bad for local environments and their people, and in the short to medium term it may yet be further bad news for the people of DR Congo who have already endured seventy plus years as a “free” country (and 135 years since Leopold set up in business) in conditions of violence and exploitation, whilst already wealthy northerners get all the benefits.’

It’s noticeable that scarcely anyone has touched on this issue, as the what amounts to a new ‘scramble for Africa’ led by Western dominated multinationals will save us.

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TM 06.15.19 at 8:35 am

Corn ethanol

“Growing biomass is absurdly inefficient and too expensive to displace fossil energy at scale. I suppose that biofuels seemed more (relatively speaking) practical back when solar PV was less efficient and much more expensive, e.g. 10 years and more ago.” (34)

I worked out the conversion efficiency of corn ethanol almost 10 years ago (https://de.slideshare.net/amenning/quantitative-problems-food-security, page 5)

It is so shockingly inefficient one can hardly believe anybody would support such an idiotic policy. And yet this is what happens. Note that the calculations are easy but I have never seen them done anywhere in the literature.

55

steven t johnson 06.15.19 at 1:08 pm

A note on biofuel: It seems to me the problem is the technology to use waste instead of food is not here.

The new scramble for Africa is called humanitarian intervention and democratization, with a straight face. And it is largely led by the historic colonizing powers in Africa, that is, the EU, which is currently deemed the incarnation of moral virtue.

I do think it would be more useful to better understand the true nature of Paul Kagame’s career than to scorn the idea that decolonization was wrong.

56

notGoodenough 06.15.19 at 4:14 pm

General comment: I think I’m at risk of getting a bit off topic, and generally derailing this thread into old-man-yells-at-cloud territory. I think it makes sense for me to take a step back, make this last comment, and then leave it there unless there are specific questions.

@ Another Nick 45. I think you are right and we are talking past each other a bit. This is my fault (as I said, I’m not so good at the communication bit, and since I love my subject I tend to go on tangents a bit), so I apologise for that.

What I was trying to get at is not that LFP isn’t feasible (it clearly is!) but to try and show that there are a lot of problems going from “brilliant lab result” to “this could be an actual batter” and use LFP as a case study (since we already know these problems and have addressed them). This wasn’t actually useful, I now realise, and probably just wasted people’s time a bit.

I agree that the BYD have shown some excellent progress with these materials. I’m not entirely convinced it is unfair of the article to point out problems with, for example, Co use though. I am not an expert in this side of the field, so perhaps some legal/economic people could help me with this, but surely – at least to a certain extent – if we are looking at European supply chains, to what extent do BYD’s advances impact European Co use?

@Hidari 53. For me, speaking at the R&D side, we already have alternatives to Co. There is literally no technological reason to extract Co from the DRC. At all. What is tricky is the commercial side – i.e. getting alternatives above TRL 3, and to marketplace. This involves a concerted effort from research and industry to essentially “bridge the gap”, which – though technologically feasible – is often not done because of many reasons (some of which I’ve rambled about in my post at 41.

I think (as I alluded to briefly already) this is getting pushed more by the European grant commissions, but this is more gentle nudging rather than overwhelming driving force. This probably isn’t much help to the people getting the sticky end of the extraction industry.

I think everyone agrees that the human cost is high, and we need to address this. But how?

For example, I think there is no battery-design reason we couldn’t just ban Co in batteries. Setting aside whether or not it is politically feasible (also an important consideration), would that be the most sensible approach? Or would the loss of income from this do more harm than good? Please note I am not arguing for continuing exploitation (I am very, very much against it), but rather asking what is the best way of stopping it without making things even worse?

I am completely out of my depth on this side, and would very much welcome any input from people who actually know what they are talking about.

In a more general sense, I think this sort of problem seems to apply to everything from Co in DRC to clothing manufacture in Asia and iPhones in China, so perhaps it is too big for people to respond to in a blog post.

In short, I suppose, my question is that if there is a country getting an income from being horribly exploited, what is the best way stopping the exploitation?

@ steven t Johnson 55

If you don’t mind, I have a quick question from someone who is ignorant in this area?

Given that all the grants, major funding proposals (e.g H2020, H2030, etc.), big-think pieces (EU commission directives, circular economy studies, etc.) that I am aware of say Co and (to a lesser extent) Ni are CRMs and their use should be minimised or eliminated, why do you (seem to) imply that the EU is on a massive binge to recolonise Africa and set up a new imperium?

I mean, I’m not disagreeing (I don’t know enough about geopolitics to comment), it is just from the perspective of someone who gets told what resources we should look to research it doesn’t seem to square. Could you maybe point me in the direction of some resources so I could look into this myself?

Apologies to everyone for the tangent, but I would welcome the chance to educate myself a bit better.

57

John Quiggin 06.15.19 at 4:18 pm

@Matt The same kind of problem afflicts IEA and EIA projections of fossil fuel and renewable electricity. They build them in a bottom-up fashion using consistent databases. But the price is that all the information in the databases is years out of date. So, every year they have to revise renewable projections up and coal projections down, and every year they undershoot.

The defence is that “projections aren’t predictions” which would stand up except that
(i) nearly everyone treats them as predictions
(ii) there’s no obvious use for projections, except as conditional predictions

58

Jason Weidner 06.15.19 at 4:21 pm

Another significant example of the issue raised in the original post regarding the impact on the environment and people where the extractive activities occur that are required for “sustainable” technologies is the Atacama desert in Chile. This recent article in Bloomberg gives a good overview: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-06-11/saving-the-planet-with-electric-cars-means-strangling-this-desert.

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steven t johnson 06.15.19 at 5:39 pm

notGoodenough@56 asks why we should think the EU is intent on intervening in Africa. The destruction of Libya is a start. The economic warfare finally leading to the coup in Zimbabwe is another. The support for Paul Kagame is another. French troops in Mali, Niger, Central African Republic, et al. is another. The vociferous campaign against Chinese investment in Africa is yet another. The support for Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and seemingly endless war against Eritrea. The support for the creation of “South Sudan.”Even the internecine violence in Liberia and Sierra Leone had roots in Europe. The support for the al-Sisi dictatorship in Egypt.

There is jostling between the US and the EU powers in Africa, but they are united against any opening to enemy powers and against any left-leaning governments in Africa.

60

Matt 06.15.19 at 6:07 pm

Big machines fuelled by petrol drive up, a lot of them. Then miners turn up. In cars. They dig, using petrol fuelled diggers and other machines. Then the materials are shipped on petrol using vans or lorries to petrol/diesel using ships or planes whereupon they are unpacked into petrol using trucks which take them to factories, (built by mainly fossil fuelled machines and vehicles) where…well you get the idea. Finally they are used to make Teslas (or whatever) which are transferred by showrooms (brightly lit, using mainly fossil-fuel produced electricity) by petrol using lorries and…well you get the rest of the idea.

The quantitative approach to measuring these indirect petroleum dependencies is called life cycle analysis. A life cycle analysis of GHG emissions associated with electricity from wind or solar farms includes the fossil fuels burned in mining, manufacturing, transporting, and installing the hardware. Per the IPCC’s 2014 “Global warming potential of selected electricity sources,” life cycle analysis indicates that displacing fossil-generated electricity with wind or solar reduces emissions by more than 90% when displacing natural gas, and more than 95% when displacing coal. That includes the petroleum fueled industrial activity indirectly required for the solar or wind farms.

Carbon dioxide is built into our civilisation. De-carbonising will not be easy: at all. The easiest way to do it is to leave the fossil fuels in the ground, which means:

consume less, build less, buy less.

This is easily stated; easily achieved, not so much. It’s hard to get a high enough compliance rate to be effective across large populations. There are states and countries where emissions trends have been reversed by changing the technologies of energy use and production. I don’t know of any equivalent region where those trends have been reversed by voluntary reductions in consumption. Involuntary reductions in consumption associated with societal breakdown can be deep and swift. Post-Soviet Russia saw a dramatic decrease in CO2 emissions during the 1990s. But that had tremendous costs in human suffering and premature deaths.

Intervening to change the behavior of emissions-intensive businesses is effective and more easily achieved by legislation than changing lifestyles.

Californians consume the most electricity in the summer, for cooling. They would consume less electricity and maintain the same indoor temperatures if every building with air conditioning were retrofitted to state of the art insulation standards, but that requires expensive changes to millions of already-built structures. Millions of Californians could use less electricity immediately if they tolerated significantly higher indoor temperatures, but that hasn’t happened in the past 20 years and I have my doubts that it will happen today.

The approach that California has instead taken is to displace demand for gas-fired electricity with solar and wind power. Demand for gas-fired power in the month of August on the CAISO grid peaked in 2012 at a monthly-averaged demand of 15346 megawatts. It has decreased every year since and was down to 10722 megawatts in 2018. Over the same period, August generation from non-hydro renewables grew from 3030 megawatts to 8001 megawatts. Total electricity consumption in the month of August grew slightly even as fossil-generated power declined significantly. Legislative changes affecting a handful of key companies are more effective in practice than urging masses of people to voluntarily act in a coordinated fashion.

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