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Demand for critical minerals drives massive changes in global economy

Alex Thompson By Alex Thompson May18,2024

The race to beef up global supply chains for metals and minerals crucial to the ongoing energy transition is heating up.

Companies are jockeying for position within shifting production networks and legislatures are advancing packages to pull mineral processing away from China, where the industry has been concentrated for decades.

At stake in the quest for mineral resources is everything from an international environmental ban on scraping the ocean floor to barbaric labor norms in developing countries, where mining operations have long been criticized by human rights groups.

At the core of multiple controversies is surging demand for critical minerals — metals such as cobalt, lithium and copper that go into building batteries, magnets, electronics and component parts for energy technologies intended to replace the fossil fuels that have driven global warming and climate change.

Demand for lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper is on track to outpace production through 2050, according to a recent report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. 

Lithium tops the list, with expected demand in 2045 more than tripling the likely supply in that year of nearly 1,400 metric tons. Demand for copper in new energy systems is expected to jump from 23 percent of total demand for all uses of the metal to more than 42 percent by 2050.

“To meet the increasing demand, countries need to explore new resources abundant in high-grade mineral ores and attract investments into the sector, among other essential measures,” U.N. economists wrote in a March brief.

While reserves of the raw materials that go into fossil fuel production, such as natural gas and crude oil, are distributed more or less globally, critical minerals tend to be concentrated in different countries and regions, putting pressure on specific supply chains and trade relationships.

More than half of the world’s lithium, an important component in batteries, is located in just three South American countries — Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Indonesia and Australia have 42 percent of the world’s nickel, and the Congo has about half of the world’s cobalt.

Even more concentrated than the raw materials themselves is the purification and mineral refining capacity, which is almost exclusively carried out in China.

“That is the part of the supply chain that China absolutely dominates. They dominate it for cobalt, they dominate it for graphite, they dominate it for aluminum, copper, lithium,” Tom Moerenhout, a research scholar in energy policy at Columbia University, told The Hill. 

“You have the concentration risk at the extraction stage but even more so in the processing stage, because it’s one single country that has so much of the processing capacity,” he said.

Lawmakers are unhappy with the state of global mineral production and want the U.S. to have a firmer grasp on the composition of its supply chains.

One bipartisan proposal introduced earlier this year would require regular reports to Congress from the Department of the Interior on where critical minerals and rare earth elements are coming from and what sorts of political and market forces and coming to bear on producers.

“The United States urgently needs to diversify our supply chain and strengthen ties with allies,” Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), a sponsor of the measure, said in a statement.

“Our legislation would respond to China’s actions by better tracking global mineral reserves and devising a national strategy for advancing mining technologies and international cooperation.”

Deep-sea mining is another area where political pressures are coalescing around the demand for minerals.

Commercial seabed mining does not currently take place at industrial scale and is still only a hypothetical enterprise, one entangled in a web of questions about its environmental consequences and economic viability.

But metallic nodules on remote regions of the seafloor such as the Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean have governments and international bodies debating the topic hotly and looking at questions of feasibility as they pursue policies related to the energy transition.

“There’s huge political pressure to change this,” Moerenhout said.

The U.S. is not currently a part of these negotiations since it hasn’t signed the 1982 Law of the Sea treaty, the convention that establishes the Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority (ISA) as the governing body for ocean mineral rights.

But efforts are underway to get the U.S. to join, including a bipartisan resolution to ratify the treaty as well as a letter sent in March to the heads of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by former intelligence chiefs and secretaries of defense encouraging ratification.

“We have already lost two of our four ‘USA’ designated deep seabed mine sites, each containing a trillion dollars in value of the the strategic minerals of copper, nickel, cobalt, manganese and rare earths, minerals critical both for United States security dominance as well as the transition to a greener twenty-first Century,” former Directors of National Intelligence James Clapper and John Negroponte wrote, along with dozens of other former officials.

Environmental groups are dead set against seabed mining and are raising alarms over the unknown damage it could cause to the ocean.

“Deep sea mining is a new, highly-destructive extractive industry that is eager to start in our global oceans,” environmental advocacy group Greenpeace said in a position paper, arguing that the practice “risks inevitable, severe, and irreversible environmental damage to our oceans and marine life. 

As the U.S. redesigns its mineral supply chains and “friend-shores” some of its production pipelines in militarily sensitive industries such as semiconductors, some companies are trying to stay above the fray of relying on critical and rare earth minerals altogether.

Technology from Niron Magnetics, a permanent magnet producer born out of Department of Energy-funded research at the University of Minnesota, started figuring out how to build magnets from widely available iron and nitrogen materials in 2013.

“We spent the next eight years or so perfecting the science, and we spent the last couple of years really engineering and scaling and commercializing the technology,” Niron CEO Jonathan Rowntree told The Hill. “We’ll have first commercial sales later on this year, and we have huge interest from our customer base.”

The labor and humanitarian implications of the scramble for critical minerals in developing countries are growing increasingly urgent as economic demand ratchets upwards.

One harrowing 2023 exposé by University of Nottingham associate professor Siddharth Kara that centers on cobalt mining in the Congo draws parallels to the colonial barbarisms carried out in the region during the reign of King Leopold II of Belgium beginning in the late-19th century.

“The harsh realities of cobalt mining in the Congo are an inconvenience to every stakeholder in the chain. No company wants to concede that the rechargeable batteries used to power smartphones, tablets, laptops, and electric vehicles contain cobalt mined by peasants and children in hazardous conditions,” Kara wrote.

Alex Thompson

By Alex Thompson

Alex is an award-winning journalist with a passion for investigative reporting. With over 15 years of experience in the field, Alex has covered a wide range of topics from politics to entertainment. Known for in-depth research and compelling storytelling, Alex's work has been featured in major news outlets around the world.

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2 thoughts on “Demand for critical minerals drives massive changes in global economy”
  1. Are there any specific countries that are leading the way in exploring new resources for critical minerals?

  2. Will the race for critical minerals have any impact on the environment and human rights issues in mining operations?

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