The rise of critical metals

Metals are playing a key role in decarbonization – and they can be produced cleaner

Marco Corbella, vice president of Tenova Metals, says technology will help make metals production more sustainable, including by improving plant efficiency and recycling used metals, to help fuel the energy transition.

#9-December 2023

When most people think about the energy transition, solar and wind power come to mind, so too lithium for electric car batteries and the promise of green hydrogen. What is not so well known is how much of a role that niche metals will play in the race to reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

These metals – cobalt, lithium, manganese, nickel, platinum, and rare earths – are critical for the processes of decarbonizing energy, industry, and transport, as well as for fueling the digital revolution.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. “We do everything with metals, from driving the car in the morning to cooking our dinner at night and everything in between,” says Marco Corbella, vice president of Tenova Metals. “Everything is made of metals.”

The challenge for the energy transition is how to decarbonize the production of these metals. That’s not always been a major concern. Most of the metals have long been produced in China, where the enforcement of environmental regulations has traditionally been softer than in the West. But over the past few years, a series of geopolitical events – disruptions in the global supply-chain during the pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and rising US-China tensions – has sparked a shift to making more of these metals in the West.

This poses several challenges. The first is to produce these metals with the stricter environmental standards that are not only required in the West but are increasingly being demanded by consumers, investors, and the producers themselves. The second is to do this at a low enough cost to compete with Chinese products. The third is to ramp up production quickly to meet rising demand for critical metals for the energy transition and their uses in the surging digital economy, such as with the rise of artificial intelligence.

The result has been a rise in demand for effective, sustainable, and financially-viable technologies that can produce these critical metals with low emissions and costs.

Take lithium, for example. While the silvery-white metal helps make clean energy possible in electric cars, the main methods of extracting lithium – brine and hard rock mining – harm the environment. To limit these damages, Tenova is working with Germany-based chemical and battery producer BASF to build the world’s first demo plant for recycling lithium-ion batteries using mostly water.

The beauty of this new process is that it not only recovers metals – lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, but it doesn’t waste water even though it is a very water-intensive process. New lithium batteries are produced out of old ones with very low carbon emissions compared with producing virgin metals for batteries.

Other such recycling projects are getting developed, not only in the West, but also in China itself. In China, for example, Tenova recently built another smelter so that these metals can be recovered from auto catalysts.

These recycling technologies are a good example of the circular economy, where resources are reused in order to reduce the need for extracting new resources.

Tenova is also developing technologies so that these critical metals can be produced with low emissions and at competitive costs. In the United States, for example, it is designing a highly efficient and modern silicon metal plant to supply the refined material to the fast-growing electric car, renewable energy, and energy storage industries.

Corbella says the decarbonization of the metals industry is happening in steps, beginning with the steel industry’s investments in technologies to reduce their emissions and meet rising consumer demand for environmentally-friendly products. This will soon extend to scope 2 and 3 emissions (therefore emissions from ferroalloys and other metals) and to the metals for energy transition. “The next waves will come from copper, from lithium, etc., and we are starting to see it happen in the markets and at a global level,” he says. “This is a journey and it’s just starting.”