Trapped between green goals and geopolitical reality

Raw material shortages are putting the brakes on the energy transition. It is time for more (urban) mining in Europe and policy to get the circular economy off the ground.

Is it time for the EU to start mining for ‘critical metals’ for itself? “We can do this in a much cleaner way than many other countries.” (Photo: Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash)

The war painfully exposes our energy dependency. But can we tear ourselves away from the geopolitical vice if we move to green energy? This will have to be seen. We need large quantities of valuable metals if we are to achieve our sustainability goals. The EU obtains most of its nickel (for batteries), iridium (for electrolysers) and rare earth metals (for electric vehicles and wind turbines) from outside the EU. China and Russia are important suppliers.

In an article in the The Economist (26 March), the energy transition itself has been christened the ‘commodity transition’ – from oil, coal and gas to ‘green metals’ – shifting the geopolitical dependency from autocratic oil states to autocratic ‘electro states’.

A meeting (in Dutch) was held online on this subject last week. It was co-organised by raw materials and circular economy expert Benjamin Sprecher of the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. The title of the meeting leaves little to the imagination: Raw materials shortage, war & the energy transition: between green goals and geopolitical reality.

Iridium, lithium, neodymium and dysprosium
Sprecher presented sobering figures (in Dutch). Between now and 2050, for the energy transition in the Netherlands alone, up to 33 million tonnes of metals are needed. And this was the calculation before the EU – the Netherlands included – decided to stop using fossil fuel-based energy because of the war in Ukraine. Three quarters of this amount is iron. But it also includes a lot of rare ‘critical metals’ such as iridium, lithium, neodymium and dysprosium.

To achieve the 2050 energy goals, the Netherlands alone would need at least 10% of the world’s current production of these critical metals every year. This while the Netherlands only accounts for 0.2% of the world’s population. A huge discrepancy. Similar calculations can be made for all EU countries. And you would then conclude that there is an enormous chasm between green goals and geopolitical reality.

Or not? “The transition can be done without exceeding ‘our fair share’ of the worldwide production of metals,” says Sprecher. The Netherlands’ need for the critical metals given above could be reduced to only one or a few percent, he believes. “We could really make progress if we lengthen the life of products and recycle better. But to do this we would need the legislation to be adapted.”

‘A solid raw materials policy is a precondition for the energy transition’

But if we believe GroenLinks House of Representatives Member of Parliament Suzanne Kroger, who attended the meeting online, the Cabinet does not yet have raw materials firmly on its radar. And an EU policy is also not really getting off the ground.

“A solid raw materials policy is a precondition for the energy transition,” says Kroger. “But these two factors are hardly joined up in political debate.” She believes that it is significant that the Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate claims to be addressing the energy transition, while the subject of the ‘circular economy’ is “parked somewhere in the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management.”

Michel Rademaker, Interim Director of The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, too announced that as far as he is concerned, the EU should come up with clear raw materials-industry policy and that mining activities will also need to be started in Europe. He hopes that the war in Ukraine is a wake-up call. “The good thing is that we can mine much more cleanly in Europe than is now being done in many of the countries from which we now obtain the raw materials.”

Rademaker pointed out that rare earth metals can be quarried in Sweden and that Finland and Serbia are rich in lithium.

Lithium from geothermal sources
It may also be possible that this is just the top of the iceberg, said raw materials expert Mike Buxton of the Resource Engineering research group at the Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences (CEG) to the Innovation Origins journalism platform. “We have explored the surface of Europe very thoroughly. It is even the most explored geological area in the world. But we know relatively little about what is happening 400 metress below the surface.”

According to Buxton, much research is currently being done on a very promising technology: electrolytic metal mining. This involves electrifying the water that seeps through the fissures in the rocks to generate reactions that cause the metals to dissolve in the water.

And perhaps lithium – a very important raw material for batteries – can also be mined from warm groundwater that rises in geothermal sources. The European Commission expects that geothermal energy will play an important role in the energy transition.

If everything goes according to plan, later this year work will start on extracting geothermal heating on the TU Delft campus. The plan is to bore down to a geothermal source of 75 degrees to heat the buildings on the campus and surroundings. Two conduits will be drilled on the campus to a hot water reservoir more than two kilometres deep. Unfortunately, the researchers expect to find little lithium under the campus.

The colour of crushed pegmatite
But TU Delft is helping to fill the lithium stock of Europe in another way too. Researchers at the TU Delft Resources & Recycling lab are working on a major European research project which is looking at more efficient recycling techniques and methods to extract lithium from rock.

Francesco Di Maio (CEG) is leading the TU Delft research. “At the moment, the metal is extracted from rocks called pegmatites which consist of only few percent lithium. We have patented a technology which allows to detect which fragments contain higher concentrations of lithium containg ores based on the color of crushed pegmatites.” The idea is to select those richer fractions and use them as the basis for the lithium extraction. Di Maio and his colleagues will experiment with lithium pegmatites from Serbia.

Editor Tomas van Dijk

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