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Sustainably Greening the Future – How the Mineral Resource Sector Seeks to Do Its Part to Close the Loop

Merely days after assuming office U.S. President Joe Biden has already signed a series of executive orders on climate change and related policy areas, marking an expected shift in priorities from the preceding Administration.

But even before, and irrespective of where you come down on the political spectrum, there was no denying that we find ourselves in the midst of a global green energy transition. At ARPN, we have long made the case that the current push towards a lower-carbon future is not possible without critical metals and minerals — lots of them.

As the World Bank outlined last year, and as confirmed by various other studies, “the future energy system will be far more mineral and metal-intensive than it is today,” as Dr. Morgan Bazilian, Director of the Payne Institute and Professor of Public Policy, Colorado School of Mines told members of Congress.

The World Bank report, entitled “The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition,” published in the spring of 2020 estimated that production of metals and minerals like graphite, lithium and cobalt will have to increase by nearly 500 percent by 2050 to meet global demand for renewable energy technology. To achieve the transition to a below 2°C pathway as outlined by the Paris Agreement, the deployment of wind, solar and geothermal power, as well as energy storage will require more than three billion tons of minerals and metals.

The renewed emphasis on shifting towards a lower carbon future will not only have to be reconciled with the above referenced facts, but also with the growing realization that as we push to reduce greenhouse gases, we can’t ignore the geopolitical challenges associated with the supply chains for the metals and minerals underpinning the green energy transition — a realization the urgency of which the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced.

As entire supply chains are being overhauled, the mining and resource sector, which represents one of the most energy-intensive industries on the planet, is increasingly recognizing [its] responsibility and trying to meet the increased expectations of consumers, society and governments” to contribute towards the push towards a greener energy future. Thankfully, the industry can harness advances in materials science and technology to meet the challenge of restoring a balance between mining and environmental protection.

Last year, we outlined several initiatives by mining companies to “close the loop,” ranging from overhauling supply chain policies to ensure suppliers conform to certain environmental and social standards, to incorporating renewable power sources into their operations to offset some of the carbon costs of resource development. (Take a look here.)

Since then, many more steps have been taken by mining companies big and small, and we’re taking the opportunity to highlight several today:

  • As part of its push to pursue “closed-loop” solutions, in December of 2020, mining company Rio Tinto announced its plan to increase recycling capacity at its aluminum operations at Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec, Canada. A $8.4 million project will involve the installation of a new remelt furnace to melt down aluminum cuttings from customers for use in rolling ingot production for packaging and automotive clients.
  • Chemistry giant BASF has announced a new “Circular Economy Program” in the context of which the company aims to process 250,000 metric tons of recycled and waste-based raw materials annually, replacing fossil raw materials. Specifically, BASF is developing a new chemical process to recover high-purity lithium from batteries with high yields.
  • Copper Miner Codelco has outlined a set of five sustainability commitments. Among them are the reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions by replacing all production and logistics equipment in underground mines with electrical equipment, reducing unit consumption of continental waters, and recycling 65% of industrial waste.
  • Rio Tinto Fer et Titane (RTFT) metallurgical complex in Sorel-Tracy, Quebec has developed a sustainable process with a small environmental footprint to extract high purity scandium oxide from waste tailings in the titanium dioxide production process – obviating the need for additional mining for the sought-after material.
  • While delayed largely because of COVID, London-based miner Anglo American — as part of its FutureSmart Mining™ innovation program — is moving ahead with the deployment hydrogen-powered (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle or FCEV hybrid) large mining trucks, working in collaboration with global energy and energy services company ENGIE. A pilot truck is expected to be deployed in the first half of 2021 at the Mogalakwena platinum open pit mine in the north-western part of South Africa in Mokopane, Limpopo. If the technology proves successful, 400 mine-haul trucks of the company’s vehicle fleet could be rebuilt to use hydrogen fuel.
  • U.S. gold mining group Newmont in December 2020 announced a planned investment of US$500 million over the next five years into wind and solar technology to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. As part of the project, the company will study how to best inject solar, wind and energy storage projects into its operations and will work to develop new technologies.

Of course, this list is only a small snapshot of what is happening in the resource sector as part of the push towards a circular economy, and we will continue to monitor and draw attention to innovative ways to sustainably greening the future going forward.