A long-term strategy for critical minerals

8-11-2022 | News

The recent explosion in prices and the scarcity of supply are an alarm signal that calls for the definition of industrial policies in the field of the most important raw materials

In a global market, Claudio Baccani recently wrote, who was board member of Assorisorse, the supply of minerals depends on numerous economic, logistical and geopolitical factors and for this reason it should always be accompanied by safer local solutions that can guarantee the serenity needed to justify long-term investments. In his opinion, the two possible solutions to mitigate the effect of "dependence" on uncontrollable factors are:

  1. Leverage the circular economy. It is a strategy widely applied to materials such as iron, aluminum, copper, plastic, glass, paper, waste oils, etc. where the market is consolidated and the business model in terms of circular economy it is clear, tested and applicable on a large scale by all the operators involved (municipalities, institutions, consortia, industries, services…).
    In the case of minerals used in new technologies, recycling is not the short-term solution because markets are growing exponentially (as in the case of lithium, rare earths, cobalt and others) and the recoverable quantities represent a small percentage of the needs. Furthermore, the complexity of the artifacts in which these new minerals are used make the collection, enucleation and recovery operation very expensive and not justifiable for the current economies of scale. A clear example is that of the amount of steps required to disassemble a hard drive from the computer to recover the permanent neodymium magnet: these difficulties significantly affect the costs of recycling. However, start developing processes and "business modelHowever, says Baccani, recycling of the most exotic minerals is vital in order to be ready to recover them in large quantities in 10/20 years when the markets for these materials have settled.
  2. Procurement from national mineral sources however, it remains the most valid strategic solution, especially for minerals linked to the energy transition, as it will allow them to play an active role on the market for these essential raw materials and play an equal game with global partners. However, we must ask ourselves whether it is realistic in Italy to think of a resumption of mining activity. To answer this question, Baccani analyzes which minerals are useful for the energy transition and explains that they are, in fact, all the minerals containing the elements of the Mendeleev table.
    The history of technologies in fact begins with the discovery of metals such as copper, zinc, tin and iron for the manufacture of tools and then with the other essential elements for industrial processes, agriculture, food, the sector. pharmaceutical and domestic uses. However, it will be after the Second World War that the use of radioactive elements useful for the production of energy will be discovered and for some decades the more exotic ones that boast unique electromagnetic characteristics to be used in digital and in the new frontiers of energy production. It is therefore wrong to think that only lithium and cobalt are needed for batteries or neodymium and samarium for permanent magnets; in reality all those minerals vital for our traditional industries are needed that some geologists already consider scarce as in the case of copper, zinc, manganese, boron, potassium, phosphorus, just to name a few.

In addition to the classic markets, these “traditional” minerals are also increasingly used in new technologies. For example, in the new electric cars powered by a 60kwh battery there are 20-30 kg of lithium and cobalt, 60 kg of graphite and 5 kg of rare earths, but also 200 kg of aluminum, copper, manganese and nickel. And in a medium-sized city every year 100,000 cell phones are disposed of containing more than 1 kg of gold, about 1,500 kg of cobalt and lithium, but also equivalent quantities of other less noble metals. If we look at the size of the markets, some data give us an idea of the criticality of some minerals: if for rare earths, lithium, cobalt the market volume is around 100-200 kt / y for each, for aluminum and copper the demand is respectively 65 Mt / a and 20 Mt / a, to even reach 2,000 Mt / a for ferrous minerals. 

In order to supply these quantities of raw materials, the extractive effort associated with the productions is enormous and it is vital technology to transform them into useful products: for this reason it is a priority to develop processes with a low environmental impact and at the same time have a national (and community) political context capable of supporting and making the necessary investments. However, it should be emphasized, says Baccani, that in the last 30/40 years in Italy we have taken great steps backwards.

In the first place, the large national mining companies that boasted prestige and technologies have disappeared, gradually transforming themselves into mere environmental recovery companies. In addition, mining districts have been eliminated, highly specialized local technical institutions very close to the strategic mining activities of the country able to help solve local problems quickly and competently. Today this task is carried out by the Regions which, having vast areas of responsibility, some perceived very often more urgent than mining, due to lack of technical staff are unable to offer answers on permits, authorizations and controls compatible with the times of business. There is also no suitable university education: for many years the Faculty of Mining Engineering has been eliminated from Italian universities, a marked sign of little interest in the sector.

In a 2007 research by ISPRA commissioned by the Ministry for the protection of the environment and the territory, 3,000 mining sites were cataloged throughout Italy, located mainly in Sardinia (427), Sicily (724), Tuscany (416), Piedmont (375) , Lombardy (294), Veneto (114). Of these sites, today only 300 are active. The reason for their decommissioning, in most cases, was linked to the high production costs compared to the cost of the imported material, to the extraction techniques that are too impactful and no longer in step with the times, but also to the strong environmental pressure.

Yet, Baccani remembers, in the catalog of minerals present in the Italian territory you can find many of great interest such as titanium in Liguria, blende and galena in the Bergamo area, antimonite in the province of Grosseto, cobalt in Usseglio, etc. Furthermore, not to be overlooked, but to be deepened in a study to be relaunched with a certain systematicity, is the composition of the associated mineral (that is, of the mining waste) of those mining activities that at the time were classified with the name of the main mineral. 

In order to ensure, however, a sustainable restart of the Italian extractive industry, says the expert, in addition to overcoming the critical issues described and supporting the policy, it is necessary to do a qualitative leap and apply new paradigms. The mining activity must not be an end in itself, but must be integrated into an important environmental project, such as: the recovery of polluted areas, the construction of water reservoirs for agriculture, the production of energy from alternative sources, the improvement of the landscape impact. In summary, a project with two positive implications: shared with the territory which would have a return not only economic but above all environmental and with the value of constituting a strategic industrial project for the country.

The chance that can be developed starting from our geological heritage, concludes Baccani, obviously respecting the environmental standards of our time and using cutting-edge technologies in terms of sustainability and personnel safety, are many, and even if we will not be able to be completely independent from abroad for the supply of numerous raw materials, certainly, as a national industry we will be able to play an active role in the market of mineral raw materials and above all associated technologies.

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