Uranium, cobalt, copper … energy transfer accelerates global metal war

“We are moving from the oil era to the metals era”, recently explained the boss of the mining giant Eramet. And there are already countries, such as industrialists, that are trying to preserve or control these raw materials that are essential to the decarbonization of the planet.

For fossil fuels, the noose tightens. The gas crisis, fuel prices, climate emergencies … there are so many factors that have accelerated the energy transfer calendar. In France, the 30 billion investment plan presented by Emmanuel Macron will be further redirected to this theme, while a recent energy report from RTE confirmed the choice of nuclear power in support of renewable energies.

Time is running out because oil, if it continues to be used extensively over the next ten years, will mechanically become difficult, due to a lack of new investment. If black gold is no longer popular, the extraction of metals has very good days ahead of it.

“We are moving from the oil era to the metals era”, summed up BFM Business Christel Bories, CEO of French mining giant Eramet. “Demand will explode in 2030. It’s estimated that for some metals like copper, we’re going to get more in the next 30 years than we’ve got since the beginning of humanity.”

China captures rare earths

Copper but also cobalt or lithium, and many elements that only followers of Mendeleïev’s table know: niobium, gallium, indium … Not to mention the famous rare earths, this group of metals (not less rarely, in fact) which plays an important role in the coming years.

All have uses, more or less importantly, in energy transfer for batteries (lithium, nickel, copper …), photovoltaic panels (silicon, gallium, indium …) or wind turbines (neodymium, dysprosium. …).

As the whole world begins its ecological conversion in a forced march, the supply of metals becomes important, especially for Europe where most mines are now closed. On the contrary, China has managed to cannibalize the rare earth market: in 2018, it represented 88% of world production, at the cost of unimaginable environmental damage on the European continent.

Base metals are also found abroad, specifically in the Andes for copper and lithium. Chile will be one of the key countries for these strategic productions. On the nuclear side, French uranium originated in Niger and thorium, which has been shown to be the nuclear fuel of the future, is mainly sourced in China. Ultimately, Europe would have little to claim even if France took advantage of hafnium, which is used in its reactors.

Europe is looking for its solutions

In reality, Europe threatens to face the same problems of global dependency seen during the health crisis. Last year, the Commission endorsed the creation of a European Raw Materials Alliance, which should “connect with industrial players, member states and civil society” to strengthen the EU’s strategic autonomy.

But room for maneuvering is limited. The main lever is the recycling and improvement of technologies to reduce the amount of metals used. More importantly, Europe relies on its companies to secure this supply. “We have plans to refocus on energy transfer metals” Christel Bories confirms. “The projects we have under development could represent between 15 and 25% of Europe’s needs in 2025 – 2030.”

The option of new mines in Europe still remains. A very controversial topic though is that the European Union has some interesting reserves, especially in Greenland (constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark) with rare earths or in New Caledonia (French community) which is very rich in nickel.

Good mines?

From there to mass re -launch the acquisition? In 2019, the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE) issued a favorable opinion on this topic to “lift the ban” in France. There is no real hope, because the image of the sector is associated with environmental damage.

The sector, however, claims to be able to offer eco-compatible mines. “If we start extracting these metals by emitting a lot of CO2, not paying attention to the environment, biodiversity or the welfare of communities, we will not be able to fulfill the ecological promise of this migration” Christel Bories acknowledges. The CEO of Eramet however stressed that a “virtuous” mine costs more, hence the interest for the EU to put strict entrance regulations on its market with the ability to monitor imported metal.

Some major metal producers in the world in 2020

Democratic Republic of the Congo : 68% of world Cobalt production
Chile: 29% of the world’s copper production and 22% of the world’s lithium production
Peru: 11% of the world’s copper production
Australia: 49% of global lithium production

Thomas Le Roy Journalist BFM Business

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