Companies are learning to think outside the mine to lock down raw materials for the energy transition, invest in metal extraction from oil and wastewater, and push boundaries on recycling.
Without new resources, the shift to cleaner energy could stall within the next five years, the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SME) warned in a March 21 report. For example, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights, lithium chemical consumption is forecast to exceed supply annually between 2024 and 2027. For copper, Commodity Insights analysts expect the balance of refined copper supply and demand to tilt from a surplus to a deficit of 160,000 metric tons by 2027.
SME forecasts that the US would need 359 new mines to meet its demand for metals crucial to the energy transition, such as nickel, cobalt and lithium. Commodity Insights estimates an average of 15.7 years to bring a mine to commercial production, which is occasionally as long as 32 years. With such a long lead time, some companies have decided to blaze new paths.
“It’s certainly a significant challenge, and we’ve got to get started on it,” David Kanagy, executive director and CEO of SME, said in an interview. “We’ve got ourselves in a bit of a quandary. So many people have decided they’d like to move away from fossil fuels: oil, gas, coal, etc. The bright future is in renewable energies; that’s very true. The problem is that people didn’t understand that when they moved away from fossil fuels to the green economy, they would vote to start more mines.”
Lithium from oil
While the energy transition seeks to move away from fossil fuels, Volt Lithium Corp., based in British Columbia, is working the Canadian oilfields, extracting lithium-rich brine.
“Having a North American supply in a steady regulatory environment is very critical,” Alex Wylie, Volt Lithium president and CEO, said in an interview.
Volt Lithium is targeting brine about 1,700 meters below the surface at a site in Alberta, where another company is already tapping the reservoir for oil. The brine can largely be extracted with existing infrastructure, reducing the need for new permits or environmental reviews.
“We’re going to be extracting the lithium, and the oil company is going to be extracting oil,” Wylie said. “This is a huge advantage from a regulatory perspective.”
Wylie said the company’s footprint is about 3% of the size of a new mine or direct lithium extraction operation. While the company is starting with a project in Alberta, there is potential for the same extraction process to be used elsewhere.
“Once we can prove we can do this on a pilot basis, we open up brines across North America, across the world,” Wylie said. The company is planning to begin production in the second half of 2024.
Metals in the water
Volt is not the only company looking for metals in water. Gradiant Corp. Inc., based in Massachusetts, is a technology company that treats wastewater and has found a viable business model for capturing valuable materials from waste. The company has already extracted significant amounts of lithium and copper from waste streams.
Globally, a shortage of copper from traditional sources could derail ambitions to decarbonize, as companies have failed to invest in new mines and demand for the red metal is expected to skyrocket in coming years. Gradiant can economically extract dilute amounts of copper from a mining operation’s waste stream, enhancing the economics of treating a mine’s wastewater.
The company has a project in Western Australia that treats the discharge from a nickel mining operation’s tailings pond, which contains a high concentration of the valuable metal.
“You take this dirty water, and then you take fresh water out of it. If you recover a lot of that volume as your fresh water, then what is left behind is a very concentrated brine, a concentrated stream of what would otherwise be rejected but, in this case, happens to contain a lot of nickel,” Gradiant CEO Anurag Bajpayee told Commodity Insights. “It’s actually extremely significant value. Not one that I would say disrupts the global nickel market, but it is very significant to the extent that the economics of nickel recovery will justify the entire water treatment and recycling project.”
Gradiant announced May 2 that it was working with technology company SLB, formerly known as Schlumberger Ltd., mining giant Rio Tinto Group and an unnamed Australian global mining company to improve productivity and sustainability concerning water processing, including targeting the recovery of lithium, nickel and cobalt.
“It’s not something we are dreaming about. It’s not something we are claiming to do in a few years,” Bajpayee said. “We are doing it today with large, well-known household name types of customers. This can be done and deployed at scale rather rapidly.”
Recycling has long been seen as a way to backfill demand for crucial battery metals. Various companies have been looking into the recycling route, including Glencore PLC and Li-Cycle Holdings Corp. outlining plans May 9 to study the development of a battery recycling hub in Italy.
Massachusetts-based 6K Inc. uses recycled battery material as a feedstock in its plasma-based process to create new battery materials with custom-tailored properties. 6K said it can convert old battery material into new battery chemistries without reverting to the elemental forms of the metals. It also said it can do so at about 50% to 65% of the cost of making the same products in China, which dominates much of the battery manufacturing supply chain.
“We need to bring all those steps to the United States,” Sam Trinch, group president of 6K Energy, said in an interview. 6K is building a battery material manufacturing plant in Jackson, Tenn. The facility will be able to produce multiple battery chemistries using its plasma-based technology, including nickel-based batteries, iron-phosphate batteries and primary batteries.
Establishing a source of domestic raw materials is critical to accomplishing the Biden administration’s goals of building out a domestic electric vehicle industry in the US, Trinch said.
“The market is going to be here because of the investment into electric vehicle manufacturing and cell manufacturing. You have to follow that up with materials processing,” Trinch said. “Ultimately, we believe that we can provide a lower cost, equivalent performance and much-better-for-the-environment material.”
Source: S&P Global