27 April 2022

ANU calls for more earth scientists as EVs put pressure on critical minerals

| James Coleman
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A shortage of critical minerals could hamper the growth of EVs. Photo: James Coleman.

A computer chip shortage might plague the global car industry at the moment but another shortage is looming, one that could seriously hamper the rise of electric vehicles.

Fossil fuels might be finite, but so are the metals that go into EV batteries. As demand increases and the world scrambles for solutions, the Australian National University (ANU) is calling for the next generation to consider a degree in Earth science.

Four speakers from prominent educational institutions across the country will come to Canberra for a public symposium on 5 May to discuss the role of critical minerals in the transition to low-carbon energy.

Mark Hoggard is a research fellow for the Research School of Earth Science at the ANU and says the free event is motivated by the “worrying” closure of several prominent Earth science institutions around the country when we need all the brainpower we can get.

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“Over the next 20 to 25 years, we are forecast to need as much copper as we have ever used in human history to date,” he says.

“Some of that can be achieved through recycling existing copper, but you can’t recycle everything you’ve ever made in human history to meet the demand. That means we are still going to be needing to get copper out of the ground.”

Lithium, cobalt and nickel are also on borrowed time.

“Nickel is one of the ones that is expected to have the highest shortfall, in terms of what we know we have versus what we think we’re going to need.”

Likewise, cobalt has turned out to be almost essential in batteries, but at least two-thirds of the world’s supply comes out of mines in southern Congo in Africa.

“The mining conditions there are not great,” Mark says.

“It’s not where you’d ideally want to be sourcing cobalt, so there’s a big push to find an alternative source of cobalt that is more socially and ecologically responsible.”

Man in check shirt

Mark Hoggard, Research Fellow at the ANU Research School of Earth Science. Photo: ANU.

Mark’s work covers a broad area of earth science called geodynamics, or as he puts it, “how the Earth works and why”. He says Australia is relatively blessed to have a plentiful supply of ore-rich rocks close to the surface, but it’s time to start digging deeper.

“Working out how to find new deposits means pushing the hunt for deposits deeper than the surface. But to do that, we want to minimise any environmental and social impacts, and in Australia, that means finding large and high-grade deposits so you only have to dig one hole.”

Mark says that all of these minerals can be recycled once mined, but the key is having enough of them to make them “economically viable”.

“For example, copper is in a lot of wiring and piping, so when you replace a building’s stock, you need to separate your wiring and pipework from the general rubble. It can all be done relatively efficiently, but it does require effort at all levels.”

In the case of cobalt, Mark says companies and academics are doubling down on finding a battery technology that doesn’t rely on the dirty metal.

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“It’s proven quite hard to replace cobalt, but there has been some success with nickel-based solutions. But what this does is push your demand onto finding nickel. There are only so many technological solutions you can find before you have to go with one of them.”

Mark says the world is relying on the next generation of earth scientists to come through school, understanding how important these issues are.

“If we’re going to solve them, we need a well educated and capable workforce,” he says.

“Judging a department purely by the number of undergraduates doesn’t actually tell you about how valuable the research is to the wider Australian society.”

‘The role of Earth Science in 21st century Australia’ will be held on Thursday, 5 May at 5:30 pm in the China in the World Theatre on Fellows Lane, ANU. Register online for free.

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Good story James Coleman! EV have been touted as the panacea for our carbon emission crisis… But you have to wonder whether we are just kicking the environmental impact can down the road a bit. Batteries are heavy, they don’t last forever, have charging issues and they come with a huge environmental and social cost. It may be good that we start talking about these issues sooner rather than later.

My money, for what its worth is that Hydrogen fuel cells and green hydrogen will take off in a big way. Use solar and wind to hydrolyze water and either burn the hydrogen in furnaces or power vehicles using fuel cells. The technology has been around for decades… But not adopted for the usual reasons I guess… for example Elon Musk is going around calling the technology a silly idea.


Why we would listen to Elon’s opinion on an alternative to Li-Ion batteries is beyond me….

Green Hydrogen will find its place in the mix but in the meantime the more gas guzzlers we can remove the better. Put your windows down and drive through the tunnels in Sydney during peak hour then think about this happening everyday in every city around the world, then add in all the jet fuel and the diesel burning trucks and ships spewing out there poison all over this small blue planet. It’s horrifying!!!

Capital Retro7:24 am 03 May 22

I notice you didn’t mention evil coal fired electricity power stations. Why was that?

In a nutshell, the ANU academic has said that there are going to be problems in the future, sourcing sufficient rare minerals.
When you consider that in 2016, Carsguide.com.au estimated that there were 1.32 billion cars, trucks and buses operating in the world, it gives an idea of the vast amounts of minerals that would be required to replace the ICE.
To me, it’s apparent that EVs are only part of the solution.

Dig those mines, rip up the jungle, force kids at gunpoint – all to contribute to EV fanboys toys.
So oblivious to the destruction to the environment – see no evil. And you thought ICE vehicles were bad

Capital Retro1:16 pm 01 May 22

There are substantial cobalt deposits in NSW not far north of Canberra.

They could be mined “more socially and ecologically responsible” than child miners in the Congo but with people like Matt Kean in the current NSW government there is no chance they would proceed.

What a dilemma.

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