As our global systems of energy production, transmission and storage rapidly shift to renewable and low-carbon systems, CSIRO research published last year reveals that some metals will face demand increases approaching 500 per cent by 2050.
That’s because renewable technologies such as offshore wind turbines and large-scale battery storage are more mineral-intensive than existing energy production facilities like gas-fired power plants.
As fossil-fuel generators are retired, the building and maintaining of new renewables infrastructure and the large-scale manufacture of essential components such as electric vehicle (EV) batteries, will ramp up demand for various metals.
Most of the ‘critical minerals’ essential for the global energy transition have deposits in Australia – examples include copper, lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt and neodymium – but mining is just one part of the equation.
To effectively map out the industries, the support structures and the funding to support Australia’s future as a key supplier of critical minerals, we must take into account global markets, environmental risks and the impact of recycling as the world moves towards a circular economy.
“Figuring out how to supply which metals for the energy transition is a very interesting challenge, because there are so many different scenarios to model,” says Dr Jerad Ford, former lead of CSIRO’s Critical Energy Metals Mission.
Critical minerals can refer to anything on the periodic table that will be important for upcoming challenges, such as manufacturing the advanced technologies used in computing and increasingly, in our global energy transition, he says.
“The amount of new mining we will need to support this transition will be influenced by how things play out between many technologies that are just emerging now,” Ford says.
Ford cites the electric vehicle revolution as an example, where many kinds of battery technologies are being developed which often use very different metal combinations.
Copper is needed in almost every single renewable energy technology, and likely will continue to play a big role, as will lithium; but while cobalt is currently in hot demand for its use in very high efficiency EV batteries, cheaper emerging battery technology now doesn’t use cobalt at all.
Australia has the world’s sixth-largest reserves of rare-earth minerals including the group of 15 metals known as the lanthanides, which include scandium (used widely in aerospace components), cerium (popular in both self-cleaning ovens and to coat wind-turbine blades) and neodymium (a powerful permanent magnet).
“The really interesting story about rare earth metals and critical minerals is actually about permanent magnets,” says Ford.
“Neodymium is the element most commonly used, but other rare earth minerals also play a role – and their ability to never lose their magnetic field makes them essential in things like EV motors and in spinning wind turbines, where very powerful magnets drive the generator to make as much electricity as possible.”
Green hydrogen is another emerging renewable technology – and critical minerals will play an important role here, Ford says.
This could include non-corrosive electrolysers like titanium to help split water into its component parts; palladium and other minerals used in the fuel cells that transform hydrogen into power; and vanadium used in membranes that allow hydrogen to be converted to and from ammonia for storage and transport.
Working out how to meet future metal demand is not as simple as just taking a look at our current supply levels, or counting up known deposits available to be mined, Ford says.
Most metals are infinitely recyclable – which means that the global flow of metals is complex and dynamic, with metals sometimes locked-up for decades in durable consumer products with variable lifespans. ‘Second life’ applications can also extend the life timeframe of such products as EV batteries, repurposed for home or grid energy storage.
Ford’s group has developed a modelling and accounting method that tracks the dynamics of metal supply and demand at a global scale over long timescales, called a Physical Stocks and Flows Framework (PSFF), which can help strategic planning around metal supply and demand for governments and organisations.
“Australia has traditionally been good at producing the raw materials that the world needs, but we also need the end-product goods ourselves,” he says. “There’s real opportunity for us to add value to mining before we export; for batteries, we can make better chemicals that are much higher value and even vertically integrate and grow our local battery industry here.”
Ford says that CSIRO’s Critical Energy Metals Mission aims to connect Australia’s mining and manufacturing sectors to maximise these opportunities – and to help alleviate future roadblocks.
One of the biggest challenges in the critical minerals sector is the current concentration of renewable technology supply chains in China, says Ford – adding that Australia is looking to improve renewable energy trade partnerships with other allies such as India, Japan and South Korea in order to help diversify global supply chains.
“Whether it’s battery chemicals or the high-grade silicon used in solar PV, China dominates the market – and having so much depend on one country, this weakens the resilience of a supply chain that is already under pressure from high global demand,” says Ford.
He cites the impact of the US Congress Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, barring imports from China’s Xinjiang region, where around 40 per cent of the world’s solar panels are made.
“This regulation has impacted an entire year’s pipeline, gigawatts of installed solar in the US.”
Another challenge is the need to comply with growing regulation around circular economy and sustainable manufacturing and end-of-product-life plans.
“The EU is considering a mandated proportion of recycled materials [pdf · 737kb] in all batteries, and demand will grow for circular economy to be built into manufacturing processes,” he says.
“Much of the hydrometallurgy and other techniques and capabilities we use to produce the chemicals for battery and other energy technologies, can also be deployed at the other end of the process, to extract these important minerals out of products at their end of life.”
Ford notes that market pressures for increased use of recycled materials will lead manufacturers to design products so it’s easier to get the materials back at the end. “We just need to be smart about how we deploy the skills we already have in this area,” he adds.
The scale and the speed of the global energy transition is mind-boggling, he adds – and while that’s great news for our battle to mitigate climate change, there is a real risk that we may not be able to produce enough of the necessary materials – leading the energy transition to slow down.
The rapid acceleration of renewable technologies globally – specifically solar PV – is something that keeps CSIRO Energy Technologies Principal Research Scientist Dr Greg Wilson awake at night.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) has the largest compound annual growth rate of any energy technology in the world, growing year-on-year at around 25 per cent – a rate that’s hard to get your head around, he says.
“Global PV will be 10 times the size that is now in a decade's time. Think of the supply constraints and the challenges we have right now - everything will be ten times greater by 2032.”
While the Covid-19 pandemic and Ukraine war have had enormous impacts on global supply chains, Wilson says that shortages of key materials could have a domino disruption effect.
He says that solar grade silicon metal is the key underlying material in PV, and while currently most active high-purity-quartz (HPQ) deposits are in the USA, Australia is sensibly looking to exploit our own reserves.
The next step will be to use HPQ materials to produce the higher-value product of polysilicon, which can also be engineered from recycled materials.
“Silicon is a critical mineral, as we transition our society to a renewable energy future – and there are competing demands, including for its use with semiconductors in everything from computers to mobile phones and EV smart vehicles,” he says.
The solution is research and innovation, he says. “This will lead to improved pathways for identifying where resources are, and refining those raw materials into something that is marketable and exportable, adding value along the way.”
CSIRO is involved in developing the research to inform government policy in this area, he adds – and can recommend the research outcomes that show promise for increased production efficiency and yields, or that can create sovereign manufacturing and value-add to the resources sector.
“For example, there’s increasing interest in developing green steel; we should also be looking at the development of green silicon, so that we can produce high-quality silicon without using fossil fuels in the multi-stage refining process, some of which occurs at 1400 degrees Celsius.”
Nobody has yet capitalised on a green silicon pathway which uses a far less energy-intensive, lower temperature electrical process, which can convert sand through to a silicon product, he says, because there’s a need for significant research investment to make the process more efficient.
Another example is the 30-metre tall solar thermal energy towers which use heliostats to concentrate sunlight to produce temperatures over 1000 degrees Celsius, which CSIRO’s Solar Thermal Research Initiative is piloting in Newcastle in NSW.
“These technologies can all play a significant role to help Australia achieve our goal to move towards a sustainable energy future by 2050, so that's where government policies and industry and government investment can make a real difference.”