“Minerals and metals are the backbone of major industries, including energy, construction, mobility and electronics” says WRF Managing Director Mathias Schluep. “If international governments and industry leaders do not source and use these resources with long-term sustainability in mind, no transition will be green. This issue looms over the climate debate and deserves far greater attention.”
And Empa adds Head of Technology and Society Laboratory Patrick Wäger adds: “The renewable energy transition will require the mobilization of great amounts of raw materials, with several of them being considered to be critical. It will be essential to understand and appropriately influence the dynamics of joint energy and material transitions in view of respecting our planetary boundaries.”
Essential components for clean energy transition
A typical electric car requires six times the mineral input of a combustion-engine car – mainly copper, graphite, cobalt and nickel for the battery system. Around 67 tons of copper can be found in a medium-sized offshore turbine. To extract this amount of copper, miners have to move almost 50,000 tons of earth and rock, around 5 times the weight of the Eiffel tower.
Minerals and metals are essential components for our transition to clean energy and a green economy. Every year, the world mines 150 billion tons of rock to produce 65 billion tons of mineral products. In the process, 72 billion tons of waste rock and 13 billion tons of mine tailings are also produced. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global demand for critical raw materials will quadruple by 2040 – in the case of lithium, demand is expected to increase by a factor of 42.
As international companies make large investments to meet the minerals and metals demand boom, the sustainability performance behind big mining projects has come under increased scrutiny. Many minerals and metals are concentrated in just a few countries, and the search for further deposits is taking companies to more remote regions such as the high Andes and the Arctic, provoking new environmental and social challenges.
Needed: unprecedented levels of international collaboration
Currently, the extraction and processing of material resources is responsible for 90% of biodiversity loss, 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 30% of air pollution impacts. The energy transition and growth in the infrastructure stock globally risk making environmental challenges even more acute.
At the 5th UN Environment Assembly concluded in March 2022 in Nairobi, delegates discussed this issue and adopted a resolution on the environmental aspects of minerals and metals management.
The resolution was initiated by Switzerland, together with Argentina, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana and Senegal. Member States stressed the “need for enhanced action to support the environmental sustainability management of minerals” along their full lifecycle, from extraction until end-of-life. Since then, Switzerland has been co-chairing the intergovernmental process together with Pakistan.
Mineral and metal value chains are global in nature, which means that challenges and responsibilities are shared across actors, from those extracting resources until those trading and consuming these resources. Finding sustainable solutions therefore requires an unprecedented level of international cooperation, including public-private partnerships and cross-sectoral innovation.
Empa research for the transition to a sustainable circular economy
A circular economy for minerals and metals is a promising yet underdeveloped path to decrease demand for virgin raw materials. Reusing, remanufacturing and recycling components from products already in circulation, in fact, promises to provide several environmental, economic and social benefits.
The transition to a more resource efficient and circular economy may lead to an increase in the recovery rate of precious minerals and metals, a reduction in global demand for primary resource extraction and the sustainable use of resources across the whole life cycle.
As an interdisciplinary research institute of the ETH Domain, Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, conducts cutting-edge materials and technology research. A careful and responsible use of our natural resources and a way of thinking in terms of closed cycles are core elements of Empa’s approach.
Among other activities, its Technology and Society Laboratory aims at supporting the transition to a sustainable circular economy by identifying the conditions for a circular economy within planetary boundaries and investigating the availability and recoverability of rare and critical raw materials, with a focus on batteries, electrical and electronic equipment, and vehicles.