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Where’s Your Lithium from? EU’s New Green Deal to Track Critical Materials

Business News/Analysis, China, Congo, Democratic Republic of, Finland, Funding/Financing/Investing, Policy, Portugal, South Africa, Sustainability, Turkey
October 15, 2020

by David Thorpe (Future Fuel Stratgies/The Fifth Estate)  Renewable electricity generation and storage requires huge quantities of mined raw materials. In Europe, most of these elements are currently imported and unsustainably produced. So the European Commission has hatched a new plan for obtaining them within its borders, to make the industry more sustainable and resilient against outside disruptions.

The new policies are connected to the European Green Deal and the Just Transition Fund, which have been strengthened by their important relevance to the bloc’s post-pandemic economic recovery program.

There will be an industry-driven process led by EIT RawMaterials (funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology), whose task will be to identify opportunities and barriers and to create relevant investment cases with stakeholders and industry partners.

Ending Dependence

Currently, the EU is heavily reliant on other countries, being dangerously dependent for 98 per cent of its rare earth elements on China, and the same amount of its borate – used in detergents – on Turkey, while 71 per cent of platinum is sourced from South Africa.

Many of these countries do not have the required high standards of environmental and social protection which the EU demands. For example cobalt production in the Democratic Republic of Congo uses artisanal mining practices and child labour, according to Amnesty International.

According to a recent  OECD report, the growth in materials use, and the consequent environmental consequences of material extraction, processing and waste, is likely to increase pressure on the planet and jeopardise gains in well-being. Without addressing the resource needs of low-carbon technologies, this may simply cause new environmental and social problems, such as heavy metal pollution, habitat destruction, or resource depletion.

A mini-industrial policy, a group – the European Battery Alliance – plus changes to existing legislation, will help new start-ups in the market to increase production, hopefully more sustainably, in order to meet Europe’s burgeoning battery demands, which could be worth €250 billion (A$406 billion) a year by 2025, driven by the growth in electric vehicles.

The 30 Raw Materials

The EC action plan now lists 30 critical raw materials including bauxite, lithium, titanium and strontium. It intends to help identify new sources that can be up and running by 2025, with priority given to coal-mining regions aiming to move away from fossil fuel production as part of the Just Transition.

The commission estimates that demand for lithium will increase 16-fold by the end of the decade and 60-fold by 2050. Cobalt will see a 500 per cent increase by 2030 and 15-fold by 2050.

Finland and Portugal are two countries in a position to profit from this policy shift.

“If it was possible to trace the production chain of battery materials from the battery plant all the way to the mine, certification could be given to sustainably produced batteries,” said VTT’s Päivi Kinnunen. “This would give mines and metal refineries with responsible operating practices a competitive advantage, which would encourage the European production chain to develop and grow.”

Car Industry Must Go Electric to Receive Bailouts  READ MORE

Mercedes-Benz applies brakes to cobalt and lithium (Mining Global)

Mercedes-Benz will in future only source battery cells with cobalt & lithium from certified mining sites, while significantly reducing cobalt (Mercedes-Benz/PR Newswire)

BMW uses blockchain to increase resource transparency (Electrive.com)

Volvo Cars to trace battery cobalt using blockchain technology (Reuters)

The curse of ‘white oil’: electric vehicles’ dirty secret (The Guardian)

 

Excerpt from The Guardian:  The race is on to find a steady source of lithium, a key component in rechargeable electric car batteries. But while the EU focuses on emissions, the lithium gold rush threatens environmental damage on an industrial scale  —  … Even before the pandemic, alarm was mounting about sourcing lithium. Dr Thea Riofrancos, a political economist at Providence College in Rhode Island, pointed to growing trade protectionism and the recent US-China trade spat. (And that was before the trade row between China and Australia.) Whatever worries EU policymakers might have had before the pandemic, she said, “now they must be a million times higher”.

The urgency in getting a lithium supply has unleashed a mining boom, and the race for “white oil” threatens to cause damage to the natural environment wherever it is found. But because they are helping to drive down emissions, the mining companies have EU environmental policy on their side.

“There’s a fundamental question behind all this about the model of consumption and production that we now have, which is simply not sustainable,” said Riofrancos. “Everyone having an electric vehicle means an enormous amount of mining, refining and all the polluting activities that come with it.”

A series of local and national protests, including a march in Lisbon last year, sought to raise awareness about the impacts of modern mining on the natural environment, including potential industrial-scale habitat destruction, chemical contamination and noise pollution, as well as high levels of water consumption. They also raised concerns about the impact on tourism – an economic mainstay for the country’s interior, with an annual turnover of €18.4bn in 2019.

Her (Maria Carmo’s) own father and grandfather both worked in the Argemela tin mine outside the village before it closed in the early 1960s. Back then, mining was small-scale and subterranean. A new mine, in contrast, could see half the hill disappear, potentially damaging the remains of a bronze-age settlement on its peak. Villagers also fear that chemical runoff will pollute the nearby Zêzere river, which they depend on for their crops.

After a three-year struggle, Carmo is exhausted and ready to give in. She feels the government is deaf, and that her fellow citizens aren’t interested. “So much destruction,” she said. “And for what? So eco-minded urbanites in Paris and Berlin can feel good about driving around in zero-emission cars.”

Objectors say that where there is profit to be made, local environmental impacts are almost always overlooked. The same dilemma has set back international climate talks for decades, said Harjeet Singh, global climate lead for the campaign group ActionAid. The global north wants stricter emissions targets; the global south wants economic development now, and reasonably feels that the burden of tackling the climate crisis should fall on the post-industrial societies primarily responsible for causing it. “Green technologies are essential for the transition to renewable energy,” Singh said, “but they are not without negative impacts [and] we need to ensure these don’t always fall on the poorest and most marginalised communities.”

In Chile, the battle over the impact of mining has been going on for years.

No one knows what effects lithium extraction on such a large scale will have on the Atacama’s fragile natural ecosystem. Unlike in Portugal, lithium here is found in brine, so the mining operations use no dynamite and no earthmovers, and threaten to leave no unsightly craters. Instead, they consist of a series of large, neatly segregated evaporation pools filled with millions of litres of brine that have been pumped from below the surface and left to evaporate in the sun.

The fears of residents like (Ramón) Balcázar are focused on the area’s cavernous, subterranean aquifers, from where the brine is pumped. Here, they maintain, a disaster is unfolding. There is a risk that the reserves of clean water, which are found in a separate layer above the brine deposits, may become contaminated.

Balcázar has been working with the Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salt Flats, a network of expert scientists and concerned citizens, to chart changes to the local ecology. The weight of their evidence – shrinking pasturelands, failing crops, disappearing flora and fauna – all point towards a process of desertification which they believe is exacerbated by lithium extraction.

Plans by lithium mining firm SQM to expand its operations were recently blocked by a Chilean court on environmental grounds, but almost every other effort to get the backing of the authorities has failed.

On an industrial estate surrounded by fields in rural Saxony, Christian Hanisch set out to discover a solution in recycling.

Removing the battery’s heavy plastic casing is easy enough; the challenge is how to access the lithium inside the battery cell itself. Currently, two main options exist: either heat the components to about 300C to evaporate the lithium, or apply acids and other reducing agents to leach it. Both approaches are complicated by lithium’s extreme volatility (it is prone to exploding) and its amalgamation with other metals (which are added in for better conductivity).

Duesenfeld’s approach is based on mechanical separation. This method involves physically breaking the battery down into its component parts and then extracting the residual lithium via a combination of magnetisation and distillation.

The extra materials and energy involved in manufacturing a lithium-ion battery mean that, at present, the carbon emissions associated with producing an electric car are higher than those for a vehicle running on petrol or diesel – by as much as 38%, according to some calculations.

As it is, recycling lithium costs more than digging it out of the ground. For Hanisch, one of the chief costs comes at the end of the process: converting the recovered lithium from its recycled state (lithium sulphate) into a battery-ready form (lithium carbonate).

For existing recycling plants, lithium is not where the money lies, said Linda Gaines, an expert in battery recycling systems at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. As she said: “The main purpose is to recover the cobalt, as well as nickel and copper. The lithium doesn’t add much.” READ MORE

 

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Renewable Chemical renewable chemical producer tax incentive renewable chemical production tax credit Renewable Diesel/Green Diesel/Paraffinic Diesel Renewable Diesel/Green Diesel price Renewable Diesel Production renewable diesel pumps renewable diesel tax credit renewable diesel terminal Renewable Energy Renewable Energy Directive (RED and RED II) Renewable Energy Standard Renewable Energy to Fuels through Utilization of Energy-Dense Liquids (REFUEL) renewable fuel renewable fuel oil (RFO) Renewable Fuels Directive (EU) Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2) revisions/repeal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS and RFS2) renewable gasoline blendstock renewable marine diesel Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) price Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) pumps Renewable Portfolio Standards Renewable Power Standard Renewable Synthesized Iso-Paraffinic Fuels (SIP) Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) renewable volume obligation (RVO) RenovaBio replacement molecules Repowering Assistance Program repurpose research and development research facility resiliency resource depletion resurrection grass retail retrofit return on investment R Factor RFI (Request for Information) RFS "reset" RHD100 Rhizosphere Observations Optimizing Terrestrial Sequestration (ROOTS) Rhode Island Ricardo rice rice bran oil rice hulls rice husks rice price rice straw RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) RIMPAC RINs (Renewable Identification Numbers) RINs markets RINs price risk management RJ-4 RJ-6 RME (rape methyl ester) RME180 RNA (Ribonucleic acid) roadmap rocket fuel Romania RON (Research Octane Number) rotation crops royalties RTP (rapid thermal processing) rubber rumen ruminants rural development Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) Rural Energy Self-Sufficiency Initiative Rural Renewable Energy Pilot Program Russia Russian olive rutabaga Rwanda ry rye Rye grass s saccharification Safer and Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles (SAFE) safety safflower sago pond weed SAIC SAK Salicornia salt-tolerant saltbush saltcedar sal tree salt water Sanctions Santa Monica sardine oil Saskatchewan Saudi Arabia sawdust scale up Scandinavia scholarships/fellowships Science Advisory Board (SAB) Science Policy Scotland scum sea level rise seaports seashore mallow seawater Seaweed/Macroalgae seaweed cultivation Section 526 Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) seed-to-wheel seed husks Senegal Serbia sesame sewage Seychelles shale shale gas shale oil shark oil sheep shipping shipping containers shipworm Sierra Leone silica Silphie/cup plant/Indian cup silver silver maple simarouba Singapore sisal SK slash Slovakia Slovakia/Slovak Republic Slovenia sludge Small Business Administration small engines small refinery exemption (SRE) smog smokestack soap Social social benefit investing social cost social value social venture Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) soi soil soil amendments soil carbon soil health soil microbial biomass solar energy solar 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sunflower sunflower stalks supercritical fluid supercritical hydrolysis supply agreements supply chain Supreme Court surahart Suriname Sustainability Swaziland Sweden sweetgum sweet potatoes Sweet sorghum swine waste Switchgrass Switzerland sycamore syngas syngas fermentation synthetic biology synthetic diesel synthetic gasoline synthetic kerosene synthetic liquified gas (SLG) synthetic methane synthetic natural gas Syria Tailoring Rule Taiwan Tajikistan tall fescue tall oil tallow tallow tree Tamarix tank-to-wheel tank cars tankers tanker trucks Tanzania tariffs taro tar sands Tasmania tax benefit tax credit taxes tax incentives tax parity tax policy tea teach-the-teacher teacher teacher resources teacher training technical course Technical Readiness Levels techno-economic analysis technology transfer tech transfer telephone utility poles Tennessee termites terpenes terrestrial carbon testing Texas textbook Thailand theft therapeutics Thermal catalytic depolymerization (TCD) thermal 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