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The Mineral Hunt: Searching for the green in green tech development

By Yashasvini on Nov 22, 2021 | 03:32 AM IST

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  • • Development of green tech likely to intensify further the requirement of aluminum, cobalt, copper, lithium, and nickel
  • • Carbon emissions likely from nearly 3-billion tons of minerals required by 2050 to deploy green tech could become counter-productive

The ambitious resolution to phase out coal and move towards greener and cleaner energy sources at the COP26 Climate Summit is strained by restricted finances and availability of raw materials.

Forty countries, including the US, China, Japan, the UK, Germany, and India, have signed the “Breakthrough Agenda” that commits to working with businesses to encourage tens of billions of dollars of investment into emerging green technology. The five sectors that the plan will cover at first are steel, road transport, agriculture, hydrogen, and electricity.

“By making clean technology the most affordable, accessible, and attractive choice, the default go-to in what are currently the most polluting sectors, we can cut emissions right around the world,” Boris Johnson said.

Also Read: Boris Johnson to return in final days of COP26 summit to urge negotiators

Lawmakers in the EU have also increased efficiency standards on electrical goods so they run causing lower emissions. 

To achieve all these goals, we need more wind turbines, solar panels, energy storage, and charging points and that will increase the requirement of aluminum, cobalt, copper, lithium, and nickel.

Building green energy plants

More than 3 billion tons of minerals will be required by 2050 to deploy sufficient wind, solar and geothermal power, as well as energy storage, to have a chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, Andy Home, a Reuters columnist, wrote in 2020.

Research by the Institute of Sustainable Futures reported that the demand from renewable energy and storage technologies could exceed reserves for cobalt, lithium, and nickel, and reach 50% of reserves for indium, silver, and tellurium. These metals are required to store energy in electric vehicle (EV) batteries and for power grid stabilization in wind and solar power generation plants.

Read More: COP26: Long way ahead for zero-emission vehicles despite national leaders’ pledge for EV push

Another metal that is used in most renewable power technologies is aluminum. Aluminum is the second-most used metal on earth (after iron) and it is profusely used in our everyday life - from foil to beverage cans to airplanes to automobiles.

In solar energy production, which is one of the fastest-growing renewable sources of energy, aluminum accounts for 85% of most photovoltaic (PV) components in the form of the frames that hold the PV panels together. 

The International Aluminum Institute (IAI) pegged the production level of aluminum in 2020 as 65.33 million tons. In October 2021, the Institute stated that about $1.5 trillion of investment is needed to decarbonize electricity supplies used to make aluminum so the sector can start meeting United Nations’ climate goals.

Production of aluminum

The current aluminum smelter production is largely concentrated in four countries with China producing 54% of the world’s aluminum. Russia produces 6% while Canada and India produce 5% each. Australia holds 20% of the world’s bauxite and alumina reserves, while Vietnam holds 12% reserves. Brazil contains 9% of the world’s reserves while Jamaica holds 7% of the world’s reserves.

The production of aluminum through smelting is highly energy-intensive compared to other common metals such as steel, copper, and nickel. 

Smelting is a metallurgical process to extract a metal (alumina) from its ore (bauxite). The process requires heat and a chemical reducing agent to decompose the ore, as other elements are driven away in the form of gases or slag, leaving the metal behind. The reducing agent is commonly a source of carbon such as coke, charcoal, and coal.

Also Read: Rising gas prices trigger sharp demand for coal in Europe

The production of electricity utilized during the smelting process produces 60% of the emissions.

Also Read: COP26: New cover decision draft published, calls for less action on emissions

Rising energy prices have pushed US aluminum prices to record highs. The increasing shortages of key raw materials such as magnesium and silicon metal have intensified the tight supply situation of aluminum. Silicon comprises up to 13% of alloy production in the aluminum industry.

In September, production halts in China, the world's largest producer of silicon and magnesium, pushed the prices of the metals, and ripples were felt across the entire aluminum industry, further pushing up the price of aluminum.

Limiting emissions

To limit, global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the aluminum sector would have to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 95% by 2050 to 53 million tons from 1.1 billion tons, stated the IAI.

Also Read: “Weak terms” in COP26 draft document could raise temperatures to 2.4°C

The institute added that the carbon intensity of primary aluminum would have to fall below 1 ton of CO2 per ton of metal by 2050 from 16.1 tons currently. This scenario would raise primary aluminum production by only 4 million tons to 68 million by 2050, but the recycled output would more than double to 81 million tons from 32 tons.

Primary demand for aluminum can be reduced significantly, with the greatest potential to reduce demand for metals in batteries through high recycling rates, and for PV metals through materials efficiency. 

Recycling aluminum can limit emissions by 95%. However, the waste produced while recycling aluminum needs to be disposed of after treatment, else it can alter the pH of water bodies, making it toxic to aquatic organisms.

Read more: COP26: 50 countries pledge to create climate-resilient health systems

(With inputs from Institute of Sustainable Futures, Earthworks, and Reuters)

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