Europe, Raw materials are present in the ground all over the world but some are more common in certain areas than others
These minerals and metals are used in many technologies, from smartphones to wind turbines and electric car batteries.
And as countries around the world are setting out to reduce carbon emissions, the demand for clean technologies is increasing, and with it so is the demand for raw materials.
K.C. Michaels is a legal advisor and critical minerals expert at the Internation Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organisation analysing data on the energy sector worldwide.
“Essentially all of the clean energy technologies that we need to decarbonise the energy system require large amounts of minerals and metals,” he explains.
Electric vehicle (EV) batteries for instance need large amounts of lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite. While rare earth elements are mainly used in permanent magnets for EV motors and wind turbines.
The European Union has established a list of 30 critical raw materials, mostly minerals, that are considered strategic to the EU’s economy and that have high supply risk.
The EU’s 30 critical raw materials
But where do we get them from?
“The first challenge is the availability of those critical raw materials,” explains Dario Liguti, the director of sustainable energy at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.
“The production of some of those materials is highly concentrated in certain countries today,” he adds.
More than three-quarters of the global production of critical raw materials used for energy comes from just three countries.
China leads with 66% of the global supply share, followed by South Africa with 9% and the Democratic Republic of Congo with 5%.
And in some cases, a single country can be responsible for over half of the global output.
“For example, cobalt supply from the Democratic Republic of Congo is about 60 or 70% of the world production,” Liguti explains.
Which countries account for most of the global supply of critical raw materials?
For many raw materials, a single country can be responsible for half of the global output.
For 19 of them, China is responsible for most of the supply.
China also plays a huge role in refining, a necessary step before the materials can be used.
So for example, even though cobalt is primarily mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, almost all of it goes to China for processing.
This concentration of resources can lead to major issues in supply, particularly for places like Europe, which produces very little in-house.
“If we imagine a world where there are ten suppliers of lithium and one of those suppliers has a strike or some sort of issue and a shutdown, there are a lot of opportunities to switch to other suppliers.
But if we imagine a world where there are only two suppliers and there’s a disruption from one, then there’s a really big impact,” Michaels says.
“Their demand is already right now explosive and it will only become so as the transition towards a less carbonised energy system becomes even more important,” Liguti says.
The International Energy Agency projects that if the world stays on track to meet its global climate goals and reach net zero by 2050, the overall demand for minerals is going to quadruple by 2030.
“This is a huge increase in just the next seven or eight years,” Michaels says.
“When we start to look at specific minerals, then the demand increase can be much higher. Specifically for lithium, it’s as many as 40 times, depending on the scenario,” he adds.
So can the current supply keep up with growing demands?
“There is a real risk that we won’t be able to ramp up production fast enough to meet these goals,” Michaels says.
“Even if we could have 100% re-use of all the minerals and metals that are out there today, we’re still not even close,” he adds.
According to Liguti, increasing production won’t be enough. “The quantities necessary for the green transition are staggering,” he says.
“The answer to that demand is not only through increased primary production, but it is as well through the increase of the recycling and the reuse of those raw materials, on establishing the circular economy, the traceability of those minerals, so we exactly know at which stage of the value chain those raw materials are,” he explains.
Securing the supply is not the only issue at stake. Mining can have a destructive impact not only on the environment but also on local communities.
“While we develop lithium mines and cobalt mines and manganese mines, even if the scale of operations is smaller, we don’t want to do the same errors that we did when we started exploiting oil and gas, ” Liguti says.
So we have to consider what happens to mines at the end of their lifecycle, he adds.
This means looking at “what to do with the mine, how to involve the local communities, how to account for negative externalities on the environment and mitigate those aspects”, he explains.
So how can we ensure a sustainable and ethical supply chain of raw materials?
One of the solutions, experts say, is supply chain diligence.
“Companies will be required to look into their suppliers and really try to understand where the materials are coming from, what the risks are and what they can do as purchasers to reduce those risks,” Michaels explains.
This principle will be used in the new EU battery regulations, to ensure that batteries on the European market are sustainable and circular throughout their whole lifecycle, from the sourcing of materials to their collection, recycling and repurposing.
“It can lead to real efforts to improve the situation because once the downstream companies, the purchasing companies and the car manufacturers become engaged, then they can bring about a lot of change.
They can speak to their suppliers, they can push for new standards and push for improvement,” Michaels adds.
Innovation can also play a big role in reducing the demand on raw materials.
New technologies can help improve how we use and mine these materials but also find alternative sources, develop substitutes and improve recycling.
“A raw material might not be critical a few decades from now as they were not critical a few years ago,” Liguti says.
“But they are critical now and we need to take care of that. So in 20 years, we don’t have to look back and say: “Oh, we did the same errors that we did 100 years ago when we started exploiting oil and gas”,” he adds.
To address this, the EU will adopt a Critical Raw Materials act on the 14th of March, 2023. The initiative aims to make sure Europe has a diverse and reliable supply of materials, and ensure social and environmental standards are respected, Euronews writes.
Serbian team on the threshold of scientific discoveries: batteries without toxic and rare materials
One of the main tasks of scientists around the world in recent years is to work on storage of large amounts of energy, i.e. batteries that would store the generated energy and thereby contribute to a more efficient energy transition.
Among the numerous researchers is a group of six young scientists from Serbia who are looking for a battery that would not contain extremely toxic and at the same time rare materials such as lithium or cobalt.
Under the name HiSuperBat (Healthy super battery) they have created a system that does not contain lithium and cobalt but calcium or magnesium, and also uses an aqueous electrolyte that is not flammable and toxic like commercial organic electrolyte.
Doctor Milica Vujković, who manages the project, states that the development of such battery systems could be an excellent energy solution, because thereby the usage of expensive and scarce lithium will be avoided, the cost of the battery will be reduced and safety will be increased…
That is why the search for new, cheap and safer materials, capable of storing a large amount of multivalent ions, is of great importance and is the subject of numerous researches in the world, including the HiSuperBat project, which received 180,000 euros.
Their two-year project, which ends at the end of 2022, is one of 59 selected projects supported through the Promis project supported by the Science Fund of the Republic of Serbia.
“The project is focused on the development of electrode materials for the next generation of electrical energy storage devices, based on more naturally occurring elements such as calcium, aluminum, and magnesium,” Milica Vujković, a research associate at the Faculty of Physical Chemistry, said for the N1 portal.
She points out that all young experts have expertise in the synthesis and structural study of micro/nanomaterials, electrochemistry, batteries and supercapacitors, that the project has provided new fundamental and practical knowledge in the field of energy storage, which has been published in 11 international scientific journals and 18 conference announcements.
Materials have been developed that can store a large amount of multivalent ions per unit mass.
“On the one hand, carbon material has been developed as an electrode material for supercapacitors of the latest generation, which can store large amounts of aluminum, magnesium and calcium ions on the basis of charge.
A supercapacitor was constructed at the level of a single cell, with carbon electrodes obtained from waste biomass (from the wine industry) and an aqueous electrolyte based on aluminum positive ions, whose optimal operating voltage in terms of long-term charge/discharge is 1.5 volts (V), which is half a volt more than a classic water supercapacitor,” she says.
These results were published in the prestigious electrochemical magazine Journal of Power Sources, and were done in cooperation with Montenegro and Slovenia.
In addition, the young scientists showed how the voltage and capacity properties of the carbon cathode can be improved by mixing aluminum and calcium ions.
Vujković also points out that a cathode material for batteries based on vanadium oxide has been developed that can store a large amount of calcium ions, showing higher capacities compared to the storage of lithium ion charges.
“By combining the aforementioned carbon material as an anode, calcium vanadium oxide as a cathode and an electrolyte based on calcium salt, we assembled a hybrid cell that has an optimal voltage of 1.4-1.5 volts (V).
The advantage over classic lithium-ion systems is that the constructed battery cell does not contain lithium and cobalt, and uses an aqueous electrolyte that is not flammable and toxic like commercial organic electrolytes,” she says.
As a disadvantage, Vujković cites a lower voltage compared to a commercial lithium ion cell due to the use of an aqueous instead of an organic electrolyte.
“However, something like that could be replaced by sequentially connecting more cells, which would produce a heavier battery.”
For this reason, their potential application is currently limited to systems where weight and volume are not limiting and price plays a primary role”, says our interlocutor.
Production in Serbia
The research was started with the idea that potential discoveries can be made in Serbia. It is the same now. Milica says that the constructed carbon supercapacitor as well as the hybrid cell have the potential to be produced in Serbia.
“Their performance is obtained at the level of a coin-shaped cell, which would enable application in some everyday needs: watches, toys, kitchen scales, car keys, calculators…” she states.
However, before this could happen, additional experiments are necessary in terms of optimizing cell performance.
“There is room to improve the material’s performance and overcome its weak points, and we have several ideas in mind that could be implemented.”
After the completed phase at the laboratory level, the transfer of knowledge to the industrial sector would entail testing the reproducibility of the synthesis of the given materials on a larger scale and their functionality, as well as the optimization of the cell assembly procedure for mass needs.
Such batteries would have the potential to replace lead accumulators or nickel-cadmium water systems, and theoretically speaking, they would also have the potential for application in large stationary energy storage systems connected to renewable sources, where price and safety are more important than mass and energy,” Vujković points out.
Contemporary world research
Modern world research is focused on the development of different types of batteries, based on different chemistry.
For the development of all types of batteries, it is important that they can be used in different applications, because each type of battery has certain advantages and disadvantages. Milica, on the other hand, points out that you never know in advance what can be discovered through research.
“For now, the market is mainly dominated by Lithium-ion batteries based on carbon as the anode, organic electrolyte containing lithium ions, and lithium-nickel-cobalt-manganese oxide (NMC) as the cathode.”
However, we are aware of the fact that lithium is a limited resource and that its reserves will not be able to meet the future needs of the galloping electric car industry,” she points out.
“I am convinced that the situation in that field will also change significantly.” As for our research, in the course of the project, in addition to the development of carbon and vanadium oxide, we also started the development of new types of cathodes for sodium ion batteries, based on sodium and iron.
Therefore, the further direction of our research, in addition to the improvement of the developed multivalent model, will also be focused on the development of the sodium ion system, with the aim of obtaining the best possible model not only in terms of energy, but also in terms of price and environmental acceptability.
Of course, I expect that this type of research will be recognized through future national and international calls to which we apply”, concludes Milica Vujković.
Serbian Belkalhan calcite & graphite mining developer invites JV partners for joint critical raw materials exploitation
Serbian based mining exploration company Belkalhan confirms calcite and graphite large deposits and unique quality as new European resource base for industry. Belkalhan announced that it has confirmed its deposits footprint after a positive step up drill exploration within its key prospect in South Serbia.
Belkalhan Serbia announced it has confirmed its calcite and graphite mine potentials for further investments with future Joint Venture partner. With prospect location advantages and confirmed unique quality of raw material and its quantity, Belkalhan calcite and graphite mine could become a major source for European industry critical raw materials supply.
Intersected Deposits of Calcite as calcium carbonate resource has 99,99% purity and 98% whitenesses in the deposit line of 15m thickness and 125m height, the length of 720m of confirmed deposit which indicates extremely rare deposit quantity and quality which makes it a unique world resource.
The limestone cover also has 98,5% purity and 94% whiteness which makes it an ideal resource for number of industrial technology production processes. With its premium quality and whiteness the calcite & limestone reserves are perfect for pharmaceutical, chemical and food industry among others.
Confirmed deposits of calcite as carbonate source are 5.550 million tons, with additional exploitation surface area potential.
During our exploration drilling we located the graphite deposit line of 300m length and with various depth of deposited quantities. Preliminary results indicate on the high quality and pureness. Additional 4 million tons are being expected to be confirmed in ongoing field exploration. New drills results are being expected and expectations are high for graphite quality and reserves.
Potential JV partnership and investment will enable Belkalhan to integrate downstream into the manufacturing of calcite and graphite products for a number of high-growth markets including lithium ion batteries/EVs, fuel cells, graphene and nanomaterials, thermal management in consumer electronics, smart building products and fire retardants. Calcite deposits with unique European quality makes the mine one of the most attractive in Europe.
More informations on project potentials at belkalhan.eu