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Finding the metals for a decarbonised future

02/02/2021

At least 120 countries and an increasing number of companies globally have committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, throwing the focus on the dramatic changes needed to achieve such an ambitious target.

The International Energy Agency, in its World Energy Outlook 2020 report, said that reaching net zero emissions globally by 2050 would demand a set of dramatic actions over the next 10 years.

Achieving a 40 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 would require low-emission sources to provide nearly 75 per cent of global electricity generation in 2030 (up from less than 40 per cent in 2019) and for more than 50 per cent of passenger cars sold worldwide in 2030 to be electric (from 2.5 per cent in 2019).

“Electrification, massive efficiency gains and behavioural changes all play roles, as does accelerated innovation across a wide range of technologies from hydrogen electrolysers to small modular nuclear reactors,” the report said.

Outlining various energy scenarios, the IEA said renewables grew rapidly in all of them, “with solar at the centre of this new constellation of electricity generation technologies”.

“Supportive policies and maturing technologies are enabling very cheap access to capital in leading markets,” it said.

“With sharp cost reductions over the past decade, solar PV is consistently cheaper than new coal or gas-fired power plants in most countries, and solar projects now offer some of the lowest cost electricity ever seen.

“The pace of change in the electricity sector puts an additional premium on robust grids and other sources of flexibility, as well as reliable supplies of the critical minerals and metals that are vital to its secure transformation.

“Storage plays an increasingly vital role in ensuring the flexible operation of power systems, with India becoming the largest market for utility-scale battery storage.”

Throw into this mix a Joe Biden presidency in the United States — with his support for increased production of electric vehicles, solar panels, and energy storage as part of a clean energy transformation, and control of the Senate and the House of Representatives to pursue his agenda — and the speed of change will likely accelerate.

As forecast by the IEA, reliable supplies of critical minerals and metals will be essential, not only for the predicted increase in demand for commercial and residential battery storage worldwide, but electric vehicles and the lithium-ion batteries that will power them.

Concern over the supply of key energy transition metals is not new.

Tesla said in 2019 that a global shortage of battery minerals could be on the horizon because of under investment in the mining sector.

Tesla in 2020 secured its own lithium mining rights in Nevada.

Consultants Wood Mackenzie have warned that $1 trillion of investment would be needed in key energy transition metals — aluminium, cobalt, copper, nickel, and lithium — over the next 15 years to meet the growing demands of decarbonisation.

“One can argue about both the pace and scale of the energy transition but the criticality of metals to its realisation is without question,” Wood Mackenzie said.

“Put simply, the energy transition starts and ends with metals. If you want to generate, transmit or store low/no-carbon energy you need aluminium, cobalt, copper, nickel and lithium.”

Dave Lawie, Chief Geoscientist and Chief Technologist, Mining Solutions, for leading global mining-tech company IMDEX, sees the world hitting a resources supply brick wall, particularly for copper.

Analysts Goldman Sachs says copper — which hit an eight-year high of $US8,103 a tonne on the London Metal Exchange in early January 2021 — has entered a bull market, predicting a 12-month price forecast of $US9,500 a tonne.

Dr Lawie said: “If we really want to go carbon neutral, we are going to run into this resources supply brick wall. We can see it now but not much is being done.”

He said the supply crunch could arrive in five to 10 years, because the adoption of new technology will happen faster than predicted, which will exacerbate the problem.

Dr John Steen, Director of the Bradshaw Research Initiative in Minerals and Mining at The University of British Columbia, agrees.

“Copper is the canary in the coalmine because it is the carrier of electricity,” Dr Steen said.

“As we move to an electric economy — and that’s a critical part of getting to net zero — we are going to have to produce all this copper.

“In five years, we will look back and think copper was cheap.”

Nickel, cobalt and other critical minerals will all be needed.

Dr Lawie said: “Billions of dollars have been allocated globally to improve battery technology and production, electric vehicle production, and storage and charging infrastructure, but where are the key metals and minerals coming from? There are limited supplies to meet increasing demand.

“IMDEX can’t solve the world’s problems for this but it has a part to play.

“Our drilling technology will allow much more drilling to be done more quickly; with more done on the same budget. It all starts with exploration and drilling. You can’t have a mine without exploration and drilling.”

A senior executive of a global mining company sees it similarly. “We need to get to the point where society views mining as necessary for the wellbeing of its own existence,” he said.

IMDEX is developing drilling optimisation technologies — IMDEX COREVIBETM, IMDEX XTRACTATM, and IMDEX MAGHAMMERTM — that will provide significant productivity, safety, and environmental benefits.

Dr Lawie said that, as an example, a tier-one mining client was planning a five-year drill program involving 25 drill rigs to explore for critical metals.

“If our technology was all available it would probably shorten that to two years, delivering enormous financial benefits and enabling them to make decisions sooner on either extending their drill programs in specific areas or moving on,” Dr Lawie.

Development of the IMDEX tools should be well advanced by the end of 2021.

IMDEX has signed a joint development agreement with a tier-one mining company to fast-track development of the IMDEX MAGHAMMER™ for commercial use.

It uses a new hybrid drilling technique, which combines rotary diamond drilling with fluid driven percussive drilling to achieve higher penetration rates compared to conventional coring.

MAGHAMMER™ will become more important as exploration drilling programs head under cover and at depth.

Dr Lawie said that as well as optimising exploration programs, IMDEX technologies and tools would improve overall rock knowledge, providing reliable data sooner from multiple sources to enable companies to make more informed decisions.

“This reduces the risk of establishing mines. Because of the amount of drilling and the data it will produce, there will be a high degree of confidence in mine design,” he said.

“At the moment, a lot of mines never reach nameplate capacity because the geological model was not well understood.”

Drilling aside, Dr Lawie said IMDEX’s award-winning IMDEX BlastDOGTM technology would play a vital part in mine planning and production.

IMDEX BlastDOGTM is a semi-autonomously deployed system for logging material properties and blast hole characteristics at high spatial density across the bench and mine and is commodity agnostic.

“It will allow precision mining so that deposits that are sub-economic may well become economic to process,” Dr Lawie said.

“It also means the processing intensity can increase so there is less waste, less tailings, less water used, and greater overall efficiencies.”

As the IEA report said, there is no single storyline to the future, but if the carbon neutral by 2050 pledges are to be met, a lot a needs to happen – and quickly.

It won’t all be about key minerals and metals, but they will play an important part, and the processes for finding and mining them may have to improve just as quickly to meet rising global expectations of a decarbonised world.

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