Needed by 2050: 3 billion tonnes of metals to generate clean energy

World Bank metals clean energy 2050 climate action Mineral Intensity Transition
The World Bank predicts more than 3Bt of metals will be needed to underpin the clean energies necessary to achieve a sustainable environmental future.

Cobalt projects are being sidelined, lithium miners struggle subdued pricing, and graphite has all but disappeared from the headlines — but 30 years from now demand for these three metals could have grown by as much as 500% on today’s levels.

And not just them: the makers around the world of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries will also need — if not 500% more — considerably larger quantities of zinc, molybdenum, silver, nickel, copper and a host of other metals.

That is the conclusion that the World Bank came to in its recent report Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition.

The bank’s bottom line is that more than “3 billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed to deploy wind, solar, and geothermal power, as well as energy storage, required for achieving a below 2°C future”.

There are also four other points to keep in mind:

One, there will be demand for most or all of these minerals and metals outside clean energy technologies, so there will be competition to secure supplies.

Two, and as the industry plainly knows, figuring out how long it will take between discovery and mining start-up is impossible. The World Bank reports that neodymium is one of those to be in fast growing demand, yet during the rare earths’ bubble of 2011, it was estimated that 11 years (at least) would be the average period before mining began. As it turns, out that pessimistic view was still too optimistic, as we can see from the Australian experience.

Three, 3Bt is an awful lot of minerals and metals to discover and develop, especially as all the low hanging fruit (discoveries) will well before 2050 have been picked and the level of discovery is trailing off.

Four, 30 years is a long time and even more technologies than we have not yet thought of will emerge with their own requirements for raw materials, including minerals.

And we have already tripped over a hazard: the World Bank report acknowledges that, in the current global context, COVID-19 is causing major disruptions to the mining industry across the world. How long these continue is unknown, but the demand clock is already ticking.

Recycling a help, but not enough

The report also underscores the important role that recycling, and reuse of minerals will play in meeting higher mineral demand.

However, it then adds that, even if the world scales up recycling rates for metals such as copper and aluminium by 100%, recycling and reuse would still not be enough to meet the demand.

Also, some metals will have more applications than others: copper and molybdenum will be used in a range of applications and technologies, while others — such as graphite and lithium — may be needed for just one technology, battery storage.

Clean energy needs a major challenge for miners

While the expectation is that lithium, cobalt and graphite demand could be five times higher than present, the challenge to miners (and processors) of other minerals is clear.

Demand for aluminium, indium and silver is projected to rise more than 300% over the next three decades — silver by 350%, indium by 341% and aluminium 322%.

Not far behind we have the World Bank forecast of demand in 2050 for neodymium being up 242%, lead 244% higher, zinc increasing 231% and copper rising 213%.

Titanium, nickel, molybdenum, iron ore (219% more needed) and chromium supply will also be under real pressure.

Graphite to be one of the star stories, copper too

The report noted that graphite increases in both absolute and percentage terms because graphite is needed to build the anodes found in the most commonly deployed automotive, grid and decentralised batteries.

Graphite is seen as playing a critical role in the clean energy transition being used in lithium-ion batteries, the most widely projected deployed battery technology.

The world will need to be producing 4.5Mtpa of graphite by 2050.

But look at other metals:

Copper, chromium and molybdenum are used in eight or more technologies.

Copper is required for all energy generation and storage technologies covered by the World Bank study.

Solar photovoltaic and wind are forecast to represent 74% of the red metal’s use in clean energy technology by 2050, with smaller amounts needed in hydro-electricity generation, nuclear power, and geothermal.

“This is likely a significant underestimation of the demand for copper in servicing the clean energy future since it does not include infrastructure requirements such as transmission systems,” the report stated.

Molybdenum is needed in wind and geothermal power generation, while chromium is used in the steel required to build wind turbines and is a key mineral in geothermal technologies.