As the global battery arms race continues to heat up amidst surging demand for EV battery technology and energy storage systems, a recent Financial Times piece explores the themes of urban mining and closed-loop solutions to increase critical mineral resource supply.
The piece outlines a significant challenge with regards to today’s critical mineral resource supply chains:
“The biggest source of cobalt at the moment is the DRC, where it is often extracted in both large industrial mines and also dug by hand using basic tools. Then it might be shipped to Finland, home to Europe’s largest cobalt refinery, before heading to China where the majority of the world’s cathode and battery production takes place. From there it can be shipped to the US or Europe, where battery cells are turned into packs, then shipped again to automotive production lines.
All told, the cobalt can travel more than 20,000 miles from the mine to the automaker before a buyer places a “zero emission” sticker on the bumper.”
The piece cites proponents of closed-loop systems suggesting that car emissions can be cut by more than half if the batteries used are continually recycled, and points to a 2019 World Economic Forum estimate that a “circular battery value chain” could account for 30 per cent of the emissions cuts needed to meet the targets set in the Paris accord and “create 10m safe and sustainable jobs around the world” by 2030.
While promising – with some arguing that not only could recycling aid supply constraints and help the environment but also prove to be cheaper — bringing urban mining to scale remains challenging, with one issue being design parameters of products failing to consider the product’s end of life and making disassembly “so laborious that it becomes impractical.”
However, against the backdrop of “broad political support for electric vehicles and policies to address climate change” the Financial Times piece argues that while “niche today, urban mining is set to become mainstream this decade.” Advanced materials science is doing its part, and we have previously featured several research projects and promising initiatives by several mining companies to close the loop in their operations.
The rise of the urban mine and the circular economy will undoubtedly continue. However, we stand by what we said a while back:
“Urban mining will by no means obviate the need for traditional mining and is as such not a panacea for supply woes. With innovations in the field and concerted efforts to not only improve extraction technologies, but to also develop products and materials in ways that lend themselves to easier reclamation of metals, it does, however, represent a viable opportunity to alleviate pressures – and as such deserves to be factored into any comprehensive mineral resource strategy.”
As Brian Menell, founder of TechMet, a partly U.S. government-owned investment company told the Financial Times:
“In 10 years’ time a fully optimised developed lithium-ion recycling battery industry will maybe provide 25 per cent of the battery metal requirements for the electric vehicle industry (…) So it will be a contributor, but it’s not a solution.”
The solution to our mineral resource and supply chain challenges lies in a comprehensive “all-of-the-above” approach. There is no immediate silver bullet, but against mounting resource pressures, focusing on closing the loop AND building out domestic production and processing capabilities — while at the same time fostering cooperation with close allies and scaling up research and development — is the only viable path to success in the long run.