Solar panels, electric cars, wind turbines, and hydrogen fuel cells are examples of renewable energy technologies that can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. However, the utilization of these systems must rise, and they necessitate a large amount of metal.
According to the World Bank, nearly three billion tonnes of metals such as graphite, lithium, and cobalt would be required by 2050 to provide enough systems to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, as set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. By 2050, only roughly 1 billion tonnes of metals were going to be required to meet current renewable energy system demand.
Can Canada become a worldwide leader in the supply of raw materials required for renewable energy systems, given its plentiful deposits of most of the metals required?
It might, but the increased physical, energy, and water footprints linked with extracting these metals to meet demand could cancel out any benefits gained from renewable energy sources.
Sustainability versus fossil fuel alternatives
Some argue that these two aims cannot be reconciled and that we must make difficult and unjust decisions. Finding strategies to cope with global warming is the alternative.
However, this overlooks several factors, including technological advancements that could lower extraction’s carbon footprint, the potential for a rearrangement of the metal supply chain, and the possibility of a tighter interaction between population and the metals it utilizes.
Is it possible to alter mining technology to lessen its environmental impact? Yes, there is a vibrant community of researchers that agree. Here are a few current research avenues:
• For more than two billion years, bacteria have been interacting with minerals, dissolving the minerals and enabling the metals to dissolve into water. As a consequence, a mineral microbiome has emerged, which might be exploited to develop natural methods of metal extraction and mining waste cleanup.
• Mining operations now account for around ten percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If we strive to meet metals demand using present means, that proportion will rise. In order to minimize emissions, even more, several businesses are integrating renewable energy systems.
• Some mines are using autonomous systems, some of which are electrified, but there is greater potential. A big number of little machines — a swarm which behaves like that of an ant colony — is one potential. This could make it possible to extract particular metals with a much smaller footprint.
• Metal extraction creates a massive amount of data on a mining operation’s actual behavior. Machine learning algorithms could identify patterns in this data and utilize them to optimize operations and increase mineral resource recovery.
These are enormous concepts that will take some time to work. However, researchers believe that reorganizing the metal supply chain and improving the linkages between both the society and the metals it utilizes can lead to a more sustainable metal supply more quickly. The first stage is to uncover the mineral resources business so that it is more transparent, visible, and accessible to the general public.