As many as possible
In 1989, Robert A. Frosch and Nicholas E. Gallopoulos wrote an article for the Scientific American magazine that still resonates. They said: “Some of the old solutions to industrial pollution and everyday waste no longer work. There is often no ‘other side of town’ where the modern equivalents of tanneries can be put…” They suggested an industrial ecosystem where “the consumption of energy and materials is optimized, waste generation is minimized, and the effluents of one process serve as the raw material for another process”. Basically, they applied the biological ecosystem to the manufacturing; ideally, it worked just fine. But it was on paper.
As is often the case, turbulent and entropic times lead to innovation and improvement, and the call to think and act differently by adopting a new disruptive mindset becomes paramount. As it is today.
If the Paris Agreement numbers are to be respected, the next two decades will see a 40% growth in copper and rare earth elements demand. Specifically, a 60–70% growth in demand for cobalt and a 90% growth in demand for lithium. Overall, the need for critical, rare or conflictive minerals deployed for green technologies would quadruple.
Mobile phones, laptops, e-bikes and scooters all the way to electric toothbrushes: our reliance on rechargeable batteries has skyrocketed, hence the dependence on rare elements or minerals. With the boost of EVs on roads of every geography, demand for batteries is THE topic. They are essential for green energy transitions but could become a divisive factor in a sustainable future. Since 2011, the European Commission has assessed every 3 year a list of Critical Raw Materials for the EU economy within its Raw Materials Initiative. To date, 14 CRMs were identified in 2011, 20 in 2014, 27 in 2017 and 30 in 2020. These materials are mainly used in energy transition and digital technologies.
When used responsibly, natural elements in the form of mineral resources can bring in public revenue and support the economic livelihoods of many. Conversely, many negative externalities arise if poorly managed: significant GHG emissions are linked to energy-intensive unsustainable mining and processing activities, whereas also severe social impacts in the form of corruption and misuse of public resources, human rights abuses and child labour and unequal impacts on women and girls constantly occur.
Critical minerals are essential for clean energy transitions and digital reinvention, yet they pose a burden. For the vital use of these minerals, companies and governments must address their impacts and disrupt unsustainable practices. The question is how to accomplish this.
Is it even feasible?
There are at least two types of responses to the rarity or scarcity as well as to the sustainability impact: a circular and regenerative one and an artificial one, possibly even more sustainable in the long term.
First: these metals can be recycled almost infinitely as metal atoms don’t change or degrade, so old devices can become new EVs without any performance or battery life trade-offs. Yet, only 17% of e-waste and less than 5% of lithium-ion battery-containing devices get recycled today because we say circular, but not closed circular. We do not close the loop at 100%. It is a massive opportunity to “urban mine” old products and repair, reman or build new, sustainable ones. Enlightened examples worldwide work in this direction: American Redwood Materials, led by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel, is an excellency. They recycle, refine and remanufacture to return battery materials to local manufacturers. In practice, end-of-life batteries are disentangled into their primary metals like nickel, copper, cobalt, and lithium and into cathode and anode products fed back into production. Already working with Ford, Amazon and Tesla (obviously) to extract materials from batteries and electronic waste, they are trying to close the loop. Another good names are the German Aurubis, which processes metal concentrates, scrap metals, and metal-bearing recycling materials into metals of the highest purity.
The circular or spherical economy — almost everything is 3d! — if applied to the full, is crucial in reducing demand for materials respecting earth’s physical limits; it implies a substantial alteration in the end-to-end economic system. Designing consumer electronics easier to repair and upgrade is a proven way of reducing waste and the need for mining and refining rare elements.
And the second option? Reusing and recycling are essential sustainable steps, but more is needed. Can’t we invest in developing methods to synthesize crucial minerals in labs to provide endurable alternatives while creating new brilliant jobs for young researchers? Ensuring a steady supply of these minerals without touching or mining the planet! In a conversation some years ago with the Colorado School of Mines, which is close to its 150th birthday, we talked about this. Synthesis of new materials, new and regenerated minerals, all done… indoors!
Researchers from the University of Cambridge managed to artificially produce in the lab tetrataenite (an alloy of iron and nickel arranged in a stacked crystalline structure, which gives it magnetic properties similar to rare earth magnets) by adding phosphorus. Researchers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and members of the Critical Materials Institute have found a possible new source of rare earth elements recovering them from phosphogypsum — waste from phosphoric acid production. Some promising possibilities are already happening in real labs!
Developing a well-rounded approach to decarbonization requires a thoughtfully designed strategy incorporating technological, social, and governance innovation.
How can we create a decarbonization plan that can otherwise withstand uncertainties and adverse events? The key to increasing resilience is reducing the amount needed for the energy transition, which can be achieved through technological innovation in recycling or synthesizing. Artificial intelligence has the potential to be an exceptional resource in this particular scenario.
This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Elena Morettini is the Global Head of Sustainable Business at Globant, a native digital multinational company. She is a PhD geoscientist and a passionate expert in energy and sustainable tech. Elena is the co-founder of because energy matterS, a start-up dedicated to Carbon Management and ESG, Elena believes that future businesses are inclusive and sustainable.