Professor Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum, has published a timely and thought-provoking article in Nature Reviews Materials, calling for a careful evaluation of how we source the metals required to power the ‘green energy revolution’.
A transition to a Net Zero economy – including a rapid growth in renewable energy generation and batteries for storage and transport – will be heavily reliant on raw materials, such as cobalt and lithium, which are currently mainly sourced by terrestrial mining. To ensure that green technologies are truly beneficial for both people and the planet, Professor Herrington argues that we must carefully evaluate acceptable supplies for these essential metals.
The article suggests that once the green economy is functioning it has the potential to eventually become a circular system where old technologies are recycled to build new, and in doing so decrease mining demands. However, in the short-to-medium term, recycling alone cannot meet this demand. Taking the U.S. as an example – with optimal recycling rates, 30–40% of the nation’s needs for both lithium and cobalt could be met by recycling by 2035, yet this leaves a considerable shortfall.
In the meantime, global economies will need to build up what Professor Herrington describes as a ‘circulating reserve’ of these metals by mining them from the environment and deploying them in new technologies. He argues that while there are sufficient geological resources to deliver the required metals, we must carefully balance the need to mine with the requirement to tackle environmental and societal issues, including ongoing child labour concerns.
The article suggests a range of options should be considered, potentially including deep see nodules that could provide the cobalt and manganese – as well as most of the copper and nickel – required for the world’s growing number of BEVs. Professor Herrington concludes that once a thorough analysis of our potential options has concluded, we can then make informed societal choices about metal and mineral supply to a good deal for people and planet.
The full article can be read here.