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Aluminum Prices Chase 2023 Highs

Aluminum Prices Chase 2023 Highs

Aluminum prices continue to rally,…

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has also appeared in The Christian Science…

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The Metals Behind Our Clean Energy Future

  • The IEA report forecasts exponential demand growth by 2040 for battery minerals like lithium, graphite, and cobalt.
  • Renewable energy infrastructure will require significant increases in minerals like rare earth elements, molybdenum, and copper.
  • The extensive mining and refining processes for these metals may counteract some of the clean energy benefits, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions.

A very observant longtime friend of mine opined recently that the clean energy economy is really just a metals energy economy where metals provide the basis for energy production and transmission. The idea that this emerging economy is going to be light on resources compared to our current fossil-fuel based economy is a fantasy.

And you don't have to take his word for it. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has attempted to project the needs of this new economy. The IEA's report entitled "The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions" contains some eye-popping statistics that drive home just how much in the way of metals might be needed in order to supply the builders of this clean energy infrastructure.

Using two scenarios the IEA estimated that growth in demand coming from clean energy industries just for battery-related minerals will explode by 2040 relative to 2020:

  1. Lithium: Between 13 to 42 times.
  2. Graphite: Between 8 and 25 times.
  3. Cobalt: Between 6 to 21 times.
  4. Nickel: Between 6 to 19 times.
  5. Manganese: Between 3 to 8 times.

Demand related specifically to renewable energy and its infrastructure is projected to increase for the following minerals under two scenarios:

  1. Rare earth elements (REEs): Between 3.4 and 7.3 times more. REEs are important for electric motors and generators.
  2. Molybdenum: Between 2.2 to 2.9 times more. Molybdenum is used in solar and wind power because of its ability to transmit electricity well.
  3. Copper - Between 1.7 to 2.7 times more. Copper, of course, has long been used in electrical motors and wires.
  4. Silicon - Between 1.8 to 2.3. Silicon, of course, is a semiconductor widely used in solar panels. Silicon is the second most abundant element in the earth's crust after oxygen, so it is widely available. However, it takes considerable energy and a multi-step process to produce silicon of sufficient purity for semiconductor and other applications.

These lists are, of course, not complete. Here are two more examples. Presumably, aluminum use will grow in order to lighten new vehicles thus reducing their energy use. And, startup companies are trying to encourage adoption of iron powder as fuel that can be recycled and burned again.

What is not often discussed is the vast number of new mines which will have to be discovered, developed and operated in the coming years. It is not certain enough deposits of sufficient concentration to justify mine development will be found to supply these huge new sources of demand.

And when economically viable deposits are found, their development and operation will consume a large amount of liquid fuels. Currently, almost all of those fuels are derived from oil and to a much smaller extent natural gas. This mine build-out will result in significant ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases. And the refining of these metals will require copious amount of energy to achieve the high temperatures required. The advocates of this build-out say that eventually new nonpolluting fuels will be substituted for petroleum- and natural gas-based fuels. The key word here is "eventually."

A World Bank report provides the following nifty chart which maps metals to their use in the emerging clean energy economy. It makes clear why the clean energy economy is really a metals energy economy that isn't going to be as clean as many think.

By Kurt Cobb


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  • George Doolittle on October 02 2023 said:
    Long Xylem strong buy

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