Recycling Critical Minerals for Circular Clean Energy Solutions

Recycling Critical Minerals for Circular Clean Energy Solutions

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. This page may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that I have recommended. There is no additional cost to you whatsoever.

Critical minerals corresponding to lithium and cobalt are important to energy the applied sciences that may cut back our reliance on fossil fuels. Yet rising demand for these minerals, mixed with provide chain considerations, might put our clear vitality future in danger. Recycling might provide a sustainable pathway to fulfill rising demand for these minerals. By reclaiming vital minerals from e-waste and mine tailings, we will cut back society’s reliance on mining, decreasing our affect on pure assets

Experts predict that the demand for lithium, cobalt, and rare earths will outstrip supply within the next decade. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says demand for copper and uncommon earth components will enhance by 40%, nickel and cobalt by 60% to 70%, and lithium by 90%. However, world provide challenges — together with tough geopolitics (the availability chain is dominated by China) and environmental, social, and governance (ESG)  and human rights points that plague the mining sector— might result in skyrocketing costs. This looming supply-demand hole poses a severe risk to the event and widespread adoption of fresh applied sciences.

However, a big supply of vital minerals is already accessible, round us and below our toes in electronics, EV batteries, and discarded know-how in landfills or at the moment in use. The recycling of vital minerals is a brand new, important business simply rising into day by day life. How are you able to participate?

Minerals Required for Green Energy Technologies
Source: “Green Conflict Minerals: The fuels of conflict in the transition to a low-carbon economy,” IISD

Critical Minerals and Green Technology

Electric automobile (EV) firms depend on lithium, cobalt, and uncommon earths to allow environment friendly vitality storage of their high-performance batteries. These minerals permit EVs to journey longer distances, which is vital to decreasing carbon emissions within the transportation sector. And energy storage systems, essential for storing photo voltaic vitality to be used throughout cloudy durations or at evening, depend on vital minerals of their batteries.

Making green hydrogen fuel, a promising clear vitality resolution, additionally depends on catalysts containing valuable metals like platinum and iridium. These minerals are utilized in electrolyzers that produce hydrogen by splitting water molecules. And residence photo voltaic applied sciences, corresponding to solar panels, make the most of minerals corresponding to silicon, tellurium, and cadmium to transform daylight into electrical energy.

Wind turbines, an integral a part of wind energy era, require minerals like uncommon earths, particularly neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium. These minerals are used to optimize the effectivity and efficiency of mills in wind generators. Critical minerals even have a major presence in our on a regular basis gadgets. Smartphones, for instance, depend on minerals corresponding to cobalt, uncommon earths, and tantalum for his or her performance.

Critical Mineral Supply Challenges

The world provide of vital minerals faces advanced geopolitical challenges, together with the escalating tensions between the United States and China. The U.S. authorities is ramping up competition with China, the biggest maker of fresh vitality applied sciences, which might create supply chain vulnerability for U.S. producers of solar panels and films, batteries, and wind generators. China might reduce off or prohibit entry to vital minerals, which might have extreme implications for U.S. clear vitality progress.

The environmental and social costs of mining signify vital roadblocks within the vitality transition. Many vital mineral assets are concentrated in resource-rich nations with unstable political and social environments, the place human rights abuses, environmental degradation, and socioeconomic tensions are frequent.

Mining operations in these nations are related to intense environmental injury, together with deforestation (more than 60% of the world’s nickel reserves are in forested areas), water pollution, and habitat destruction, affecting not solely nature but additionally surrounding communities and indigenous populations. The extraction course of damages ecosystems and the well-being of staff and communities, which may result in protests, conflicts, and disruptions in mining operations. For instance, 50% of lithium deposits are concentrated in water-stressed regions of South America, additional exacerbating the socioeconomic affect of the worldwide water disaster.

Countries accounting for the largest share of global supply of critical minerals
Countries accounting for the biggest share of worldwide provide of vital minerals. Source: “The role of justice in developing critical minerals,” Journal of Extractives Industries and Society, Raphael J. Heffron

Recycling Solutions

Recycling vital minerals gives one promising solution to assist tackle provide challenges and cut back the environmental affect of mining.

The IEA estimates that by 2040, recycled copper, lithium, nickel, and cobalt from spent batteries alone might present for 10% of the demand for these minerals. The Worldwide Wildlife Fund says recycling might probably provide 20% of total mineral demand between 2022 and 2050. By extracting precious minerals from end-of-life merchandise (corresponding to telephones) and mine tailings, we will cut back our reliance on uncooked mineral extraction and alleviate the pressure on pure assets.

Recycling additionally reduces the necessity for intensive main mining operations, which might cut back habitat destruction, water air pollution, and carbon emissions related to mining and refining processes. The worth generated from recycling vital minerals might contribute to the event of a round economic system, creating new job alternatives, fostering innovation, and enhancing home self-sufficiency. Investments in recycling companies in under-served communities might additionally ameliorate social considerations by decreasing negative impacts on local communities, indigenous peoples, and mine staff.

Successful recycling practices have emerged for various vital minerals like lithium, cobalt, uncommon earths, and platinum. Several firms are main the way in which in recycling vital minerals. Beyond the well-known examples of Apple, BMW, Tesla, and Lucid, modern firms like Redwood Materials (based by Tesla’s former chief know-how officer) and Nth Cycle are engaged in growing battery know-how and recycling processes.

Lithium EV battery pack
By recycling used EV batteries, we will recuperate lithium, cobalt, nickel, and different precious metals.

Recycling Lithium From EV Batteries

One instance of profitable recycling is the method used for lithium-ion batteries, that are broadly utilized in electrical automobiles and transportable electronics. Battery recycling sometimes includes shredding and crushing the batteries to separate the completely different elements. The recovered supplies, together with lithium, cobalt, nickel, and different precious metals, bear additional remedies to purify and refine them for reuse in new batteries.

A Massachusetts firm, Ascend Elements, recently opened the biggest electrical automobile battery recycling facility with the capability to course of 30,000 metric tons of used lithium-ion batteries and manufacturing scrap yearly. Ascend Elements says its Hydro-to-Cathode course of can recuperate as much as 98% of vital battery metals, which might cut back the carbon footprint of latest EV battery cathode materials by 90%. Powered by renewable vitality, the power additionally options onsite wastewater recycling to cut back its water impacts.

German carmaker BMW has established a complete EV battery recycling program via partnerships with recycling companies like Northvolt, which is constructing Europe’s largest battery manufacturing facility in Sweden, and Belgium’s Umicore.

Recycling Rare Earth Elements From Electronics

Rare earth components (REEs) will be recycled to be used in numerous applied sciences, together with wind generators, electrical motors, and laptop screens. Nth Cycle is a Boston-based firm that makes use of modern know-how to recuperate uncommon earth components from discarded electronics and different waste streams. The laptop business has supported uncommon earths recycling to decrease its dependence on abroad suppliers. In a recent report, Apple revealed that 73% of the uncommon earth supplies utilized in its merchandise had been recycled, up from 45% only a yr earlier.

Reclaiming Platinum From Catalytic Converters

Platinum, giant portions of that are wanted to make catalytic converters and gasoline cells, may also be recycled, which is driving the wave of converter thefts. The recycling course of sometimes includes accumulating and processing used catalytic converters from automobiles. By recycling platinum, which sells for $963 an ounce at this writing, firms can recuperate this precious useful resource and cut back the demand for main mining.

Mining trucks transport platinum for processing
Today, mining for vital minerals is commonly cheaper than recycling as a result of economies of scale and the supply of low-cost labor.

Policy Incentives for the Critical Minerals Recycling Industry

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), as a part of its National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, lately introduced a major funding allocation of over $192 million for numerous initiatives associated to battery recycling and analysis. This funding contains the launch of a sophisticated battery analysis and improvement consortium, in addition to the continuation of the Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize. These measures are geared toward selling sustainable and cost-effective recycling of shopper batteries to assist a safe, resilient, and round home provide chain for vital supplies.

With the anticipated surge in demand for electrical automobiles and stationary vitality storage, the DOE’s funding in recycling shopper batteries aligns with the Biden-Harris Administration’s purpose of getting EVs account for half of all vehicle sales in America by 2030. It additionally builds upon the nearly $3 billion in funding already introduced for EV and battery applied sciences as a part of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The DOE’s $125-million Consumer Electronics Battery Recycling, Reprocessing, and Battery Collection program performs a vital function within the $7 billion funding approved by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, aiming to bolster and safe America’s battery provide chain. The program focuses on a number of key areas:

  • Developing and implementing schooling and conduct change campaigns: The funding will assist initiatives to extend shopper participation in present battery recycling packages.
  • Improving the economics of shopper electronics battery recycling: The program goals to make recycling shopper electronics batteries extra economically viable.
  • Assisting states and native governments in battery assortment and recycling: The funding offers assist for states and native governments to determine or improve battery assortment, recycling, and reprocessing packages.
  • Supporting retailers in implementing battery assortment packages: The DOE’s funding helps retailers set up complete packages to gather, kind, retailer, and transport shopper electronics batteries.

What Can Consumers Do?

To assist the transition to a greener and extra sustainable future, it’s vital for every of us to behave by placing supplies into the proper recycling stream.

The Department of Energy’s consumer guide to recycling batteries options Earth911’s recycling locator to supply battery recycling areas the place shoppers can responsibly recycle each kind of battery. For profitable battery recycling, it’s important to know the differing types and how to properly dispose of them.

With the most important funding in battery recycling by the DOE, extra producers will develop merchandise that incorporate recycled battery supplies. Your purchases can contribute to recycling momentum. When searching for shopper electronics, search for merchandise that explicitly point out using recycled batteries. Most firms utilizing sustainable or recycled merchandise point out this on the product label. When we go for electronics, batteries, and different gadgets that incorporate recycled supplies, we’re not solely supporting sustainable sourcing practices but additionally encouraging firms to prioritize recycling of their provide chains.

Lastly, shoppers can demand transparency from firms about their sourcing and recycling practices. By asking inquiries to firms on their sourcing and doing your individual analysis on manufacturers which have dedicated to utilizing recycled supplies or have their very own recycling packages (Apple, Samsung, Lucid, and Tesla, amongst many others). When we make extra knowledgeable decisions and assist manufacturers that prioritize accountable and moral administration of vital minerals, nature will get a break.