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The Security, Sustainability, Responsibility, and Geopolitics of Critical Mineral Supply Chains for Clean Energy Technology 

King Philippe Of Belgium Visits Namibia – Day Four
Namibian police men walk by an hydrogen refueling station as King Philippe of Belgium and President of Namibia Nangolo Mbumba visit the Cleanergy Solutions plant on May 2, 2024 in Walvis Bay, Namibia. Cleanergy Solutions Namibia is leading the development of a green hydrogen production plant in Namibia’s Erongo region. (Photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Getty Images)

The global transition to clean energy is a necessary step in the effort to combat climate change, protect the environment, and create a sustainable energy future. The transition will convey other benefits, including a more secure energy supply, economic growth, and better public health while also promoting innovation. A successful transition will require the development of equitable, sustainable, and secure energy systems; technological advancements; smart and resilient infrastructure; updated regulations and political commitments; finance and investment; and education and human capital. This transformational undertaking, however, hinges on a handful crucial minerals and elements that have a limited number of sources. To avoid delays in the energy transition, is imperative that the material inputs necessary for green energy technologies should be considered early in this process, and that governments and manufacturers of clean energy technologies prepare now to avoid shortages and supply disruptions, including those caused by geopolitics, and take steps to hedge against scarcity-related price spikes.  

Ensuring that the energy transition stays track so climate change targets are met by 2050 could depend on ensuring extraction of more of those materials, funding the development of products that either don’t require or reduce the amount of critical resources needed, and developing robust recycling programs to recover scarce materials from products at the end of their lifespans. Technological advancements and product design innovation can reduce geopolitical risk and strengthen the energy transition as well. The world’s energy transformation can only succeed in the long run if the vital elements needed for renewable energy technologies are used sustainably and responsibly. 

As part of the energy transition, traditional fossil fuel energy sources will be replaced by low-carbon (biofuels) and zero-carbon fuels (hydrogen and ammonia) with low greenhouse gas emissions  that are more suitable for long-term sustainability. These clean energy technologies differ from fossil fuel-powered energy systems in the materials they require to build. Solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays, onshore and offshore wind generators, and electric vehicles (EVs) require more mineral inputs (copper, nickel, manganese, cobalt, chromium, molybdenum, zinc, rare earth elements (REEs), and silicon) than power plants using fossil fuel or nuclear reactors. For example, the amount of mineral resources required for an onshore wind project is nine times higher than that required for a natural gas-fired power station, and the estimated number of mineral inputs required by an EV is six times higher than what is required for a standard automobile powered by an internal combustion engine.  

The use of critical minerals and metals has contributed to the development of various renewable energy technologies, including wind turbines, solar panels, electric cars, and battery storage. The energy sector is growing in importance to the minerals and metals industry as clean energy technologies are deployed, and transitioning to renewable energy will deepen the relationship between such extractive businesses and energy. Materials essential to the energy transition such as copper, nickel, cobalt, lithium, and silicon are in high demand due to the worldwide push for cleaner energy systems.  

The average amount of minerals needed for a new power generation unit has climbed by 50% since 2010 as renewables have become an increasingly important component of the energy mix. The world’s renewable electricity capacity has been growing at a faster rate than at any other time during the last three decades. Should that pace continue, there is a real chance of meeting the goal set at the COP28 climate change conference of tripling global renewable capacity by 2030. But that outcome could depend on availability of the key materials needed to decarbonize the energy sector, develop and implement renewable energy technologies, create alternative and greener fuels and energy storage systems, electrify transportation and industry, and improve overall energy efficiency.  

At the same time, the energy sector is undergoing a transformation as a result of digitalization, which is improving efficiency, dependability, and sustainability. A more responsive and robust energy system can be created through the integration of features such as smart grids, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, big data analytics, and enhanced cybersecurity. For the purpose of modernizing the energy sector, satisfying the ever-increasing demand for energy, and facilitating the transition to a low-carbon economy, it is vital to embrace these digital technologies. Digitalization, which will play a key role in the decarbonization of the energy sector, also requires critical materials, which are indispensable for smart energy transmission grids, data centers, information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure, energy management systems, IoT, and smart sensor and energy meter technologies. 

It is necessary to guarantee responsible sourcing, recycling, and sustainability practices for those materials to limit the environmental and social impacts associated with their extraction and use and promote a transition to energy generation that is truly sustainable. Reducing the environmental impact is being addressed through the development of alternative and cleaner technologies for the extraction and processing of these raw materials and the improvement of recycling methods. For the energy transition to be a success, it is crucial to establish a responsible and sustainable supply chain for these vital minerals.  

In addition, there are worries regarding resource security and the geopolitical dynamics surrounding vital raw materials. This is because essential materials processing and production is geographically concentrated, with only a few countries and industries exhibiting substantial control of them. To mitigate geopolitical risks, it is essential to diversify processing and manufacturing of these materials.  

Figure 1. Critical Raw Materials for Decarbonization and Digitalization of the Energy Sector

The Role of Critical Minerals for the Decarbonization and Digitalization of the Energy Sector  

Installation, storage, and operational solutions for renewable energy, all essential elements of deep decarbonization of energy systems, require substantial quantities of key minerals such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper, and REEs. To successfully use cutting-edge digital technology in the energy industry, it is essential to make use of these materials. EVs and energy storage devices that use renewable resources like solar and wind power rely on rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Besides lithium, cobalt remains a vital ingredient in those batteries, despite efforts to reduce reliance on it because of ethical sourcing concerns and supply chain problems. Researchers looking for alternatives to Li-ion batteries have continued to develop replacements that are more effective, safer, and have longer lifespans. One of the most recent technological advancements is the use of graphene batteries, which offer advantages over Li-ion batteries, including faster charging, longer lifespans, and increased safety. The batteries also use nickel as a component of their cathodes. The energy density and performance of battery chemistries could be enhanced by adding more nickel. But environmental concerns related to mining activities and supply chain risks make sourcing nickel difficult. Graphite, a crucial element in energy storage devices, is also a necessary component of the anodes of Li-ion batteries. 

REEs are also an indispensable component of green energy technologies. Wind turbines and electric car motors rely on high-strength magnets that use a variety of REEs, including.  neodymium and dysprosium. REEs are crucial components of permanent magnets in the electrical box (nacelle) at the center of the blades. Most large offshore wind turbines employ permanent magnets to generate power and decrease maintenance. Thin-film solar cells, an alternative to solar cells made of silicon, are made of cadmium, tellurium, and indium. Vanadium redox flow batteries are a form of renewable energy storage.  

The production of EV components, including motors and lightweight materials, relies on metals like copper and aluminum. Renewable energy systems such as EV cables, solar panels, and wind turbines use copper, which has high electrical conductivity. Silicon plays a key role in the photovoltaic cells that are key components of solar panels. The catalysts used in electrolyzers for hydrogen production and fuel cells depend on elements like graphite, iridium, and platinum. 

The energy sector benefits from digitalization in several ways, including improved systems operation with sophisticated measurement and monitoring systems, predictions of power supply and demand and predictive maintenance, demand-side management (DSM) opportunities, and reduced cybersecurity concerns. Electric utilities offer DSM programs to persuade users to change their usage patterns and take into account peak energy demand. Digitalization in smart grid technology allows for the optimization of energy distribution, the enhancement of grid stability and resilience, and the optimal integration of renewable energy sources.  

The digitalization of energy systems is facilitated by data centers and ICT infrastructure, which make it possible to monitor, regulate, and optimize the generation, distribution, and consumption of energy in real time. These facilities require REEs for electronics and copper for wiring and connectors. Digitalization allows sophisticated energy management systems to optimize energy usage, promote efficiency, and integrate varied energy resources. Hardware and semiconductor devices in these systems use crucial materials such as silicon, gallium, and indium. IoT and sensor technologies are essential for energy system monitoring and optimization. Silicon is used in semiconductors for smart sensors, and gallium arsenic is employed in high-frequency and optoelectronic sensors. Copper and aluminum are essential elements of transmission and distribution grid wiring, conductors, and components.  

The rapid growth of sustainable energy technology like advanced energy storage, wind turbines, and advanced solar cells and the development of innovative technologies for greener fuel production such as green hydrogen and ammonia, electricity networks, and EVs relies on critical minerals like silicon, copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt, and REEs. Essential material mining is concentrated in specific areas. The biggest participants are Australia (lithium), China (lithium, graphite, REEs copper, aluminum, silicon, vanadium, cadmium, tellurium, and indium), Chile (copper and lithium), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (cobalt), Indonesia (nickel), and South Africa (vanadium). The growing importance of critical minerals in decarbonizing and digitizing the energy sector will require energy policymakers to broaden their horizons and address new vulnerabilities. Critical minerals concentrated in certain places may cause price volatility and supply security issues. 

Figure. 2 Main Producers of Critical Minerals for Clean Energy Technologies  

Geographical Distribution of Critical Minerals for Clean Energy Technologies  

Minerals crucial to clean energy technologies can be found globally, and many nations are working to discover, extract, and refine them. Geological considerations and past mining operations frequently dictate the availability of certain minerals. Variables like geopolitical shifts, political considerations such as the lack of self-sufficiency in Western countries to obtain substances critical to the green and digital transitions, market demands, and the progress of technological advancements might cause fluctuations in the availability of certain minerals. The sustainable and secure supply of these essential minerals is being ensured via ongoing efforts to discover new deposits, enhance extraction technology, and encourage responsible mining practices.  

Li-ion batteries used in EVs can store variable renewable energy and enable EV adoption in the transition to renewable energy and electric mobility. Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina have the most lithium deposits available for mining in the world. Li-ion batteries also need cobalt to prevent overheating and lengthen their lifespans. Half of the world’s cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Chinese businesses there mine and refine 80% of the world’s cobalt supply and sell the element to battery makers worldwide. The nickel used in Li-ion battery cathodes is sourced chiefly from Indonesia and the Philippines. China is the source for 90% of the world’s processed graphite, which is used in EV battery anodes. It also refines pure, high-quality graphite needed to make bipolar plates that give fuel cells good electrical and thermal conductivity and extended life.  

Silicon is used to create layers of material that make photovoltaic solar panels function. Silicon constitutes over 95% of solar cell modules sold today and is the most prevalent semiconductor in computer chips. Globally, China produces the most silicon, including ferrosilicon and silicon metal. The vanadium used in vanadium redox batteries is mined and produced in China, South Africa, and Russia. REEs are important constituents of wind turbines, solar panels, and the powerful magnets used in other green energy applications. Worldwide rare earth reserves are estimated at 110 million metric tons. About 44 million metric tons of these deposits are in China.  

It is clear that China and a select few other countries are the leaders in the supply of minerals essential to the production and operation of green energy technologies. China accounts for over 60% of the world’s production of these critical minerals and products, making it the unchallenged leader in their supply chain. The fact that China holds a relative monopoly on production of essential minerals like silicon, lithium, germanium, and cobalt provides it with a considerable number of geopolitical advantages. There is growing fear in the West that the reliance on China for these minerals and the products made from them could jeopardize its energy security. In response, U.S. and European governments are building their own vital mineral supply networks, raising questions about whether China will continue its dominance. Europe is planning to diversify vital raw material sources. 

The European Union’s Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), which won final approval in March, sets ambitious strategic raw material consumption targets for the bloc. It stipulates that no non-EU country should supply more than 65% of the EU’s annual consumption of any substance deemed critical to its strategic autonomy. The EU exceeded this barrier in 2023 with imports of bismuth, manganese, magnesium, cobalt, and strontium. In addition, virtually all of Europe’s supply of REEs was imported from China, Turkey supplied 90% of its boron needs, and its beryllium came from the United States. Europe will continue to import vital minerals, but it must diversify their sources for its economic security.  its economic security.  

To aid in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the development of digital technologies, two of Europe’s 2030 targets, the CRMA will guarantee sustainable and reliable access to those raw materials by encouraging collaboration with other countries that can supply these materials. Partnerships with a dozen different countries have already been established. In addition to this diplomatic legwork, the European Union has also set legislative mandates to reduce its reliance on huge suppliers over concerns they might not be reliable. In the United States, lithium processing facilities will be built in Nevada thanks to a $2.26 billion loan from the U.S. Department of Energy to Lithium Americas Corp. The effort to shore up domestic production of lithium, which along with copper, nickel, and cobalt are critical components of the energy transition that the U.S. currently imports, is vital to securing its economic and national security interests. Critical raw materials for a variety of technologies in the renewable energy, digital, space, and defense sectors are crucial to the U.S. economy. Access to secure and sustainable supplies of key raw materials will be necessary for the U.S. reach its short- and long-term climate and energy transition targets. For the global energy transition to succeed, it is essential that important minerals be used in a responsible and sustainable manner for the energy sector.  

Figure 3. Security, Sustainability and Responsibility of Critical Minerals  

Responsible use of Critical Minerals 

Sustainable and responsible use of critical minerals for clean energy technologies is crucial to the eventual success of the world’s energy transition.  

  • Responsible Mining Methods: Promoting and enforcing ethical mining practices are crucial steps in efforts to put an end to mining-related environmental degradation, human rights violations, and resource conflicts. In an unprecedented effort to fortify security of vital minerals, industrialized nations are rushing into less developed countries that are wealthy in resources. Mining initiatives for lithium, graphite, copper, nickel, and REEs have increased throughout Africa and South America. The renewable energy revolution and net-zero goals require these commodities, but not at the cost of human rights. Thus, responsible mining practices will need to be implemented.  
  • Ethical Procurement of Critical Materials: The development and enforcement of robust regulatory frameworks on a worldwide scale will be necessary to guarantee the ethical purchase of vital minerals and use of responsible mining processes. It is critical to support initiatives that promote ecologically responsible and ethical business practices in the extraction, processing, and exchange of vital minerals.  
  • Environmental Impacts: To increase transparency in the supply chain of crucial minerals, it is important to be able to trace the path of those materials from extraction to final product. Environmentally responsible mining practices are essential for mitigating the negative effects of mineral extraction on the natural world. The research and development of extraction methods that are less harmful to the environment and create less pollution require financial support.  
  • Sustainable Consumption and Recycling: Developing and promoting recycling methods that can recover and reuse critical minerals from items at the end of their useful lives can decrease the need for newly mined materials. This will contribute to more sustainable consumption. A circular economic approach would help cut waste while extending the lives of products that contain valuable minerals.  
  • Source Diversification and Supply Chain Resilience: Supporting efforts to diversify the sources of vital minerals can help reduce reliance on a small number of suppliers and vulnerability to geopolitical issues. In addition to identifying regions with regulations that encourage safe mining processes, it is vital to build supply networks that are both secure and resilient. Mitigating supply risks will require monitoring and stress testing of raw materials supply chains, coordinating strategic stocks of materials, and making large enterprises that produce critical minerals responsible for risk preparedness. The goal of these regulations would be to make critical materials supply chains more resistant to disturbances.  
  • Social and Economic Benefits: Community involvement and the dissemination of information regarding the advantages of essential minerals are important. To ensure that communities most affected by mining operations are heard, it is necessary to include them in decision-making processes. Ensure that local communities reap the economic and social advantages of mining by establishing benefit-sharing programs.  
  • Critical Materials Innovation and Alternatives: Both the industrial sector and academic researchers have had successes in developing alternatives to critical materials. For example, methods piloting the use of graphene as a substitute for indium in transparent conducting films and for platinum and graphite in batteries have exhibited promising results. Graphene has a multitude of remarkable characteristics. It is durable, incredibly flexible, lightweight, and possesses high thermal and electrical conductivity. However, its manufacture takes a considerable amount of time, and the end product is not of very high quality using current methods. This demonstrates that although there are certain advantages to direct substitution, it isn’t without its flaws. However, even if some substitutes create a decrease in operational efficiency, new avenues for innovation using similar processes could be revealed down the road. To serve the goal of resolving both existing and potential supply issues, it is also essential to support the creation of entirely original technologies and methods instead of focusing on the development of alternative materials.  
  • Research and Development: Finding alternative materials or technologies that could replace critical minerals will take investment in research and development. Among the many pressing problems surrounding minerals is the lack of international consensus on how to best standardize practices that are both environmentally friendly and ethically sound. Collaboration through the exchange of knowledge, tools, and techniques can improve the long-term viability of the supply chain for vital minerals.  
  • Life Cycle Assessment: Life cycle assessments of clean energy technologies are important for reducing social and environmental impacts and improving understanding of their effects throughout the supply chain. Over their life cycles, materials have an impact on the environment. The significant steps that comprise the life cycle of a product include the procurement of raw materials, its manufacture, production, use, reuse, and maintenance, and the management of trash. Quantifying and reducing the environmental impacts such as overall energy consumption and air emissions are the main objectives of a life cycle analysis of energy systems.  

The use of critical minerals in clean energy technologies can be based on a more responsible and sustainable framework if these factors are addressed by all parties involved. This buy-in will be needed to ensure that benefits of the energy transition are realized without harming the environment or people. 

Dr. Chaouki Ghenai is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow for Energy Strategy and Policy at the New Lines Institute. He oversees new energy initiatives for the institute, including Future and Innovative Energy Technologies, Geopolitics of Energy Transformation, Clean Energy Financing, New Energy Policies, and Sustainable Energy and Society. Ghenai is among the world top 2 percent of scientists in the Energy Field (Mechanical Engineering and Transport – Enabling & Strategic Technologies). He received his Ph.D. and master’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Orleans University, Orleans, France, and bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Constantine University, Constantine, Algeria. He has more than 25 years of research experience in the energy field and management of Clean Energy Research Programs and Research Funding. Ghenai has published more than 200 research papers in technical journals, book chapters, and books.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the New Lines Institute.

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