We won't run out of minerals to build a low-carbon energy system.
"Copper is used in a range of low-carbon technologies: solar, wind, electricity grids, and vehicles. In most processes, it’s hard to substitute, although aluminium could be substituted in some grid applications." This is where I would LOVE some interviews with engineers etc. Sure aluminium only has 60% of the conductivity of copper. But the following aluminium How would we do it? This is the claim. Just use more! "This means you will need a 25% thicker wire for the same results. However, the aluminium in this equivalent wire will cost and weight about half as much as copper. That’s it. Aluminium in power lines? Of course! Also underground! And in transformers and coils, in motors? Yes!"
He claims over 90% of the roles of copper can be replaced with aluminium, including batteries, EV’s, electric motors, wind turbines, etc. Just use more. https://www.shapesbyhydro.com/en/material-properties/how-we-can-substitute-aluminium-for-copper-in-the-green-transition/
At first, I was trying to understand why electric grid expansion would impact the need for copper since almost all overhead lines are aluminum with steel cores and most of what we need are high voltage overhead transmission lines.
This article from BNEF does a good job of describing the amount of overhead lines versus underground cable that we will need and the amount of copper vs aluminum required.
They estimate we will need 427 million metric tons of copper and 650 metric tons of aluminum for the global grid expansion by 2050.
Ideas that could help limit the amount of transmission lines required are storage and repurposing existing fossil fuel plants with advanced nuclear (SMRs) and natural gas with CCS.
> The world has large quantities of copper in resources, but these can be hard to extract or are in very low concentrations in ores
The concern from a number of mining analysts isn’t whether “the world” has enough minerals, but whether economically viable deposits are located in jurisdictions that allow mining the minerals. In other words this is as much a political and social issue as a geological one.
The same NIMBY mentality that is making it difficult to mine copper in the US is now impacting other countries. Peru and Chile have been experiencing regular unrest the last few years related to copper mining. Panama just shut down a $10B copper mine that was providing 1.5% of global supply.
- Minnesota copper project blocked: https://www.reuters.com/legal/litigation/us-blocks-mining-parts-minnesota-dealing-latest-blow-antofagastas-copper-project-2023-01-26/
- Cobre Panama mine shut down: https://www.reuters.com/markets/commodities/top-panama-court-rules-first-quantum-mining-contract-unconstitutional-2023-11-28/
BTW, Congratulations on being included on the 2023 Future Perfect 50 at Vox, https://www.vox.com/23950804/future-perfect-50-list-2023-ai-animal-rights-poverty-health-climate . Well deserved, right alongside other climate-change-solution influencers including Jesse Jenkins and Robinson Meyer.
Also, the thing I love about this question is the promise of substitution. How low can we go in the quest for more and more basic materials? Take sodium batteries for instance. They can avoid lithium, cobalt, graphite, manganese, copper, and nickel. But what about the cathodes?
There’s so many varieties, but 3 BIG ones are Prussian Blue and Sodium-Iron-Phosphate and Hard Carbon. Your mentioning graphite triggered my memory of checking Hard Carbon. It has many feedstocks. What about 500,000 tons of waste hazelnut shell annually? They don't need cooking or acids - just a little wash and crunching. What about sewage sludge? What about biochar from the tens of BILLIONS of tons of agri-waste a year?
Sodium batteries are more thermally stable than lithium, able to be shipped at zero charge which is cheaper and safer shipping than lithium, and overall are about a third cheaper than lithium. They’re now in EV’s as well. Their operational temperature range is also greater - from -30 to + 60 C. This is the dawn of the sodium battery industry and it is already worth over a billion dollars a year - growing 11% annually. With no feasible materials bottlenecks, it can grow to whatever size we need.
The funny thing about Peak Oil is that it was described as Doom. Yet now, running out of oil would be part of the solution. I'm being facetious to an extant, of course. But truly, if the prices of coal, oil, natural gas, etc had risen as many feared in the 1970s, we would have used a lot less of them and be much further along on the Energy Transition.
Useful analysis. Thanks.
I'm late coming to this table -- and I realize that this is a position paper on what is "available" through 2050.
But: has anyone sat down; contemplated; then tried to calculate - just what the added / increased negative environmental impacts are going to be brought about - while we "merrily go along with all of the additional mining / processing/ building / implementing the present coarse "almost all of us" seem to be going down - like a bunch of Lemmings?
Do these demand scenarios assume continued poverty in Africa and South Asia? Or would we have enough minerals for the energy transition even if the poorest countries were to start consuming the same amount of energy as places like Europe and North Asia?
Something that I would dearly appreciate would be a "..by numbers" attempt at the storage side of the sustainable energy transition. Though batteries keep getting better, there seem no odds of "store summer power for winter" kind of scale. Or are mutli-thousand-km HVDC lines criss crossing oceans and continents the only plausible way to cope with seasonal variations in wind/solar/etc. passive generation? .. in your copious spare time.. -:(
I note that many governments at COP 28 have pledged to increase nuclear capacity. Do we have enough fuel for that here in the UK, or are beholden to uranium mining countries?