Copper wiring, which will be needed to transition to clean energy.
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Metals, Morals, Methods, Momentum

Move Over, Gold: Here Are the Top 6 Metals Powering the Clean Energy Future

Jen Johnson
/
December 3, 2023

When it comes to metals, I used to admire the ones we use in jewelry: gold, silver, rose gold, maybe some hammered brass. But the more I’ve learned about what we need in order to power communities with safe, clean energy, the more other metals are becoming famous to me.

Why are these metals so important? Because to break our dependency on polluting energy and rely instead on renewables, we need to install new infrastructure. And those projects use various metals to do things like store energy in batteries or allow energy to travel through it with less resistance, helping the energy we create do more.

Here are the top 6 metals to start admiring, in order of the amount that experts think we need to produce for a clean energy transition:

The Most Important Metals for Clean Energy

Copper

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Yes, copper is used for jewelry – but it has many other uses as well. You’ve also seen it in pennies, cookware, and mugs for Moscow Mules. It’s an extremely versatile metal because it’s plentiful, easy to mold into various shapes, and is great at conducting heat and electricity. It’s also often used in medical contexts because it has antimicrobial properties.

  • Needed for: Most clean energy projects – wind, solar, power grid, green hydrogen, EVs and batteries
  • How much do we need? Experts estimate we need up to 37 million metric tons annually. Right now, we’re producing 25 million metric tons.
  • Where it’s found: Copper is found around the world, but the largest producers and reserves of copper are found in Chile, which currently supplies 28% of the world’s copper.

There are some major challenges that come up with the world needing so much copper in the clean energy transition. Even though we need to produce more copper to build these projects, it will take years to start new mining projects. On Shayle Kann’s Catalyst podcast, he interviews copper mining technology CEO Cristóbal Undurraga about the process – not only is it a years-long waiting process to get a permit to build, but mining projects may need to construct massive roads and other infrastructure to set up shop. That’s why some groups are working on technologies that could accelerate the speed of new mining projects.

Graphite

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Get out your #2 pencil, because it’s time to talk about graphite. This mineral is made out of stacked sheets of carbon atoms with a hexagonal crystal structure. Beyond pencils, it’s used for many different purposes such as lubricants, batteries, and cores for nuclear reactors.

  • Needed for: Batteries for electric vehicles – graphite is the largest component of lithium-ion batteries by volume.
  • How much do we need? Experts estimate we need up to 7 million metric tons annually. Right now, we’re producing 1 million metric tons.
  • Where it’s found: By far the largest producer of graphite is China, which delivers 61% of the world’s graphite.

One consideration currently underway in producing graphite is whether to rely on natural graphite, or produce graphite synthetically. Today, 78% of the graphite used in battery materials come from synthetic sources – but it has several drawbacks that have led to calls for a move to natural graphite. Synthetic graphite is made from oil byproducts, and heated to at least 3,000 degrees Celsius in furnaces usually powered by coal. This process takes much more energy to produce than mining natural graphite.

Nickel

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If I had a nickel for every time I’ve used nickel, I’d have a lot of metal. Nickel is used in many coins, including quarters, dimes, and yes, nickels. It’s also used to make stainless steel, and in a number of niche chemical processes like hydrogenation, cathodes for rechargeable batteries, and pigments.

Fun fact: Pure native nickel is only found in tiny amounts, but it’s also found in the interiors of meteorites that were not exposed to oxygen when outside Earth's atmosphere.

  • Needed for: Wind power and batteries for electric vehicles
  • How much do we need? Experts estimate we need up to 5.5 million metric tons annually. Right now, we’re producing 3.3 million metric tons.
  • Where it’s found: The largest reserves of nickel are in Indonesia and Australia.

Like other mining, nickel mining can create waste and contamination in soil and water. However, companies are increasingly looking to source nickel from countries with stricter environmental regulations to ensure more sustainable practices are followed. In addition, nickel in batteries can be recycled, reducing the need to mine and process more nickel to meet demand. Check your local community guidelines on e-waste to learn how you can recycle batteries.

Lithium

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If you’ve taken a flight in the last several years, you’ve probably seen a question about whether you have lithium batteries in your luggage. That’s because it’s a highly reactive and flammable metal – so if your battery was damaged, it could cause a fire. But despite the danger, we’ve found a lot of uses for lithium, from heat-resistant glass and ceramics to steel and aluminum production, and even mood stabilizers for the treatment of depression and bipolar disorder. Lithium was involved in the first human-made nuclear reaction and is part of the fusion fuel in thermonuclear weapons.

  • Needed for: Batteries for electric vehicles – by volume, lithium makes up about 16% of a lithium-ion battery.
  • How much do we need? Experts estimate we need up to 0.76 million metric tons. Right now, we’re producing 0.12 million metric tons.
  • Where it’s found: The largest lithium reserves are in South America, China, and the United States – but Australia is currently a top producer, delivering 46% of the supply in 2022.

Lithium is mined from three types of deposits: brines, pegmatites, and sedimentary rocks. While traditional rock mining makes up 60% of lithium production, in recent years, brines have become more favorable. Using the brining process is less expensive, results in higher quality lithium, and is less polluting.

The most common type of lithium brines are in areas known as salt flats – places with geothermal activity with sand, minerals with brine, and water with a high concentration of salts. Brine deposits represent about 66 percent of global lithium resources and are found mainly in the salt flats of Chile, Argentina, China, and Tibet. Although, a recent study suggests that a Southern California source of lithium could help meet the United States' lithium's needs.

Cobalt

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You may not recognize it in this form, but I bet you already have some cobalt within 5 feet of you! Cobalt is used in lithium-ion batteries, which are in smartphones and laptops. You may also have heard of “cobalt blue” – that’s because cobalt has been used since ancient times for jewelry and paint, producing blue pigments.

  • Needed for: Batteries for electric vehicles
  • How much do we need? Experts estimate we need up to 0.42 million metric tons. Right now, we’re producing 0.17 million metric tons.
  • Where it’s found: The Democratic Republic of Congo holds 80% of the world’s cobalt supply.

A major global concern in cobalt mining is human rights violations surrounding mining practices in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s estimated that up to 30% of the cobalt coming from the country is mined “artisanally” by people who use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet with little planning and few safety measures. In addition, child laborers are used to mine cobalt in the region.

In response to these violations, some companies have examined their supply chains to ensure there are no human rights violations in the cobalt they buy. To combat the problem more systemically, researchers advocate for artisanal mining to become formalized so that safety regulations can be tracked and followed.

Neodymium

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Neodymium is one of the 17 rare earth metals, meaning it is a metal that’s rarely found in a high enough concentration that’s usable, so it has to be processed. Even if you don’t know it by name, you’ve almost certainly used it: Neodymium is used to create high-strength magnets that are used in everything from microphones to in-ear headphones, computer hard disks, hybrid car motors, and aircraft generators.

  • Needed for: Wind power and electric vehicles
  • How much do we need? Experts estimate we need up to 0.12 million metric tons annually. Right now, we’re producing 0.05 million metric tons.
  • Where it’s found: The largest reserves of rare earth metals are found in China, Vietnam, Brazil, and Russia.

Because neodymium is found in such low concentrations, it’s only useful after it’s gone through an intense refining process. Under-regulated rare earth refining projects can produce wastewater that leaks acids, heavy metals, and radioactive elements into groundwater. One such project in Malaysia shut down in 1992, became Asia’s largest radioactive waste cleanup site and a $100 million project.

However research underway in the U.S. is showing promising environmentally friendly alternatives. Scientists at Penn State and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have shown that a protein isolated from bacteria helps separate rare earth metals from each other in a more environmentally friendly way, from industrial waste and electronics due to be recycled.

Putting it All Together

These six metals are key components of our clean energy future, and efforts are underway to increase production to build the projects we need to stop polluting our planet and preserve our health. But as you can see, there are many concerns surrounding extracting these metals – from human rights abuses to toxic contamination.

There are some great minds working on solutions to these issues, but there are also steps you can take to help reduce pollution and support clean energy projects. Many of these metals are used in batteries, which you can recycle responsibly so that they are processed at hazardous waste facilities. Keep an eye on the companies that use these important metals, and as a customer, ask them about their responsible supply chain practices. Hearing from people like you can encourage businesses to examine their practices because they see that their customers care about them.

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