Critical metals, let’s go for independence

In La Tribune 05/06/2023

Lecture of my masterclass @ movin’on

In December 2010, 13 years ago, I was invited to give a lecture at the Institut de France to its academicians on strategic metals and rare earths. It took place on February 6, 2012 and it was the first time that it was announced that the energy transition was shifting our world from a dependence on hydrocarbons to a dependence on metals. I wanted the world to be aware of this because I subsequently proposed a solution: the construction of vertical industrial sectors from mining production to the production of electric vehicles. Alas, only China at the time turned this advice into action.

Since then, the objective of replacing 1.5 to 2 billion thermal engine vehicles with battery or hydrogen electric vehicles has materialized. On a global scale, in 2030, the penetration rate of these vehicles will be between 60% and 100%, which requires multiplying production by a factor of 10.

Everything will be possible with the natural resources we have and in a sustainable way.

This is why I suggest we take a look at the mining industry, then how consumer industries are adapting and finally to understand the intellectual swindle built to counter the electrical transition, that is to say the fake news of “rare metals and a dark side of the energy transition”  : its promoters and its impact on politics and business.

Supply: what is the mining industry like? Over the past twenty years, nickel production has multiplied by 3, that of cobalt by 5, that of lithium by 15. There are two ways of evaluating the world supply of rare earths: global production and Chinese quotas, but both have been multiplied by about 3. Given these multipliers, it seems ridiculous to speak of a constrained or scarce supply, since when you look for metals, you find them.

consumption from the static “game over” to the dynamic “game changer”

The future demand for these metals for batteries is called by various forecasters to be multiplied by 2030 by 7 for nickel, by 6 for cobalt and 6 for lithium and 3 to 10 for rare earths according to the respective scenarios: 4 degrees or 2 degrees.

These forecasts are so alarmist that car manufacturers, such as Toyota, which have been fooled by the “rare metals and the dark side of the energy transition” fake news, claim that we are headed for an electric “game over”.

Why am I not sharing these predictions?

  • First of all, because we have untapped mineral resources and contrary to rumors we are still discovering rich deposits.
  • Second, because the height of the these digits is inaccurate. The natural resources industry has never been in “game over” mode, but in “game changer” mode. That is to say, it is never static, but always dynamic thanks to experiences and counter-intuitions, thanks to discoveries and innovations oriented towards consumption of materials that are more sober, more recyclable, more substitutable and the whole more durable, because made with the most common and available metals.

Eight examples of “game changer”

  • Sobriety & recycling:

Between the 1990s and today, I have seen in my companies a division of platinum consumption by a factor of 6 to 7 in automotive catalysis, but also substitutions with palladium and a perfect rate of recycling of these PGMs, all with increasingly strict anti-pollution standards. Without this progress it would have been impossible to have so many less polluting cars in the world.

At the same time, the glass industry saw the production technology of its platinum-rhodium devices being modernized and reducing the weight of the precious metals used by eliminating solid metal alloy parts in favor of sputtering parts; again, with a perfect recycling rate.

Another example of industrial sobriety, Tesla reduced the amount of rare earths in its motors by 25% between 2017 and 2022. In addition, the company tells us that by changing the voltage of its cars from 12 volts to 48 volts, the weight of copper embedded in the cables of its vehicles will be divided by 4. That is to say equivalent to a thermal car.

  • Availablity :

Transfers of mining technologies applied to the lithium mine via direct extraction (ion exchange, adsorption, solvent) have great prospects. The results are the doubling of the quantities extracted and a shortening of the production process from 18 months to a few hours. Not to mention a positive environmental impact since the water used is reduced and is used in a closed circuit.

Why not also show how a technology revolutionizes another material? Thanks to scientific progress, cultured diamond can replace natural diamond, the paradigm of this luxury market has been completely changed , from production to marketing.

  • Recycling :

Battery metals are recycled, this metal chemistry is widely known. Investments are on the way in Europe. European legislation imposes recycled metals in batteries by 2050, but this is already effective and will be on a large scale long before.

  • Substitutability:

Many car manufacturers no longer use rare earths in their electric motors: Renault, BMW, Audi, Bentley and soon Tesla. In addition, permanent magnets made with heavy and uncommon rare earths are substitutable with more common light rare earths or even without any rare earth. It is becoming increasingly clear that the only major market for permanent magnets will be offshore wind turbines, unless the latter find cheaper substitutions, as onshore wind turbines have already done.

The cathodes of lithium-ion batteries for electric cars have already largely evolved towards abundant metals. In 2008, the market was dominated by nickel-cobalt-aluminum alloys, then came NMC (nickel-manganese-cobalt) and now nickel and cobalt free iron-phosphate alloys used by Tesla, BYD, BMW, etc. China uses 70% LFP (lithium, iron phosphate), Europe 30%, look for the error . As Solvay says: “Copy the best” and the cheapest solution is always that of “game changer”.

Science has not yet invented the battery of the future and its metallurgy in 2030 or 2050 is still unknown as current research is so diverse: sodium, Prussian blue/white aggregates, stratified metal oxides, solid electrolyte, ceramics, graphene, silicon , nano sulfur, etc. This is why we need Movin’on to build an initial community of interest to concentrate European R&D resources and a second around the mine.

At this point, two ideas emerge:

  • The technological breakthroughs of the electric vehicle of 2050 will be so efficient in terms of materials, that the Tesla of 2023 is to the electric car what the FordT of 1908 was to current ICE cars. But if European automakers don’t quickly move towards the cheapest batteries, there will be only two automakers left: Tesla and China, which will each produce half of the world’s electric cars. Let’s have a chance for a European car manufacturer to survive!
  • The “game over” scenario of static vision is inspired by the “rare metals” fake news that has infected many brains. Thus, the 2020 World Bank study on critical metals mentions the abbreviation NMC 18 times, only once LFP; that of the IEA of 2021 mentions 64 times NMC and 23 times LFP.

“Rare metal” fake news: politics and business

Let’s move on to the origin of the evil: the hoax of “rare metals and a dark side of the energy transition”. This is a mystification since “rare metals” do not exist, except in the minds of their promoters. 

As a cador in automotive R&D pointed out, when someone pronounces “rare metals” we know that he knows nothing about it, that he will dare anything and that is moreover why we recognize it…

If human beings are offered a situation with several unknowns, such as the energy transition, they are afraid of it and a large proportion of us will instinctively take refuge in a static position: that is to say the solution that resists change to stay in known territory, even if it is dangerous, as is the case with the climate. The infox of “rare metals and a dark side of the energy transition”  has complicated the energy transition by deliberately mixing the rare earths which exist, but which are not rare, and the “rare metals” which do not exist, for the only goal of instrumentalizing a fear and then torpedoing the necessary change.

  • This fear had an origin  : the future drop in oil consumption.
  • She had a geopolitical alibi, not to open the economy to dependence on Chinese “rare metals”.
  • She had a goal, to counter the electric car.
  • She had a strategy: to provoke an anti-metal and anti-mine movement, such as those anti-cobalt or anti-lithium and tomorrow anti-nickel.
  • She had disciples in need of notoriety: commentators, communicators and other pitres without any metallurgical or mining skills.
  • It had a vector, the European media space. This one largely relayed the imposture: documentaries, studies, reports, books (when a book on metals is published, one must wonder who really wrote it) and of course the press. More serious, this media hype has become an insurmountable mental burden for the youngest who imagine a finished world, without any solution, a dead end forever and a life without hope. Again on May 11, did not a iconic business newspaper publish that the Li-ion batteries of electric vehicles contain “rare earths”  ? This is incorrect. Why doesn’t he instead say that science is finding permanent magnets without rare earths? We can never recommend enough to watch the excellent documentary:“Electric car, the great intoxication. »
  • This fear was targeted at ministers, elected officials and the European Commission. I have long wondered how politicians perform under the influence of fake news. The example of that swindle on  “rare metals” demonstrates that their performance is of poor quality. Ministers and deputies have been fooled by this geological wokism. The president of a French region with absolutely certain metallurgical and mining potential declared that the reindustrialization of his region would not go through local mines, but through the assembly of metal parts produced on the other side of the world. By refusing upstream, the downstream economy does not hold water. In the end, there were neither mines nor assembly lines.

For its part, in the light of its lists of critical metals, the European Union has also been intoxicated by the entryism of “rare metals”. Conversely, the President of the Transport and Tourism Committee of the European Parliament, Karima Delli, is no longer in this fake news when she castigates a pause in the energy transition . For what ? Because she announces to Movin’on that 60% of the materials produced in the world will be consumed in mobility, and we add with eco-design, sobriety, substitution, durability and multiple recycling.

This fear was finally targeting companies. It is impossible to tire of being surprised that industries as mature as automotive, energy, chemicals or defense have fallen so easily into the trap of this mystification of “rare metals”. without resorting to contradiction, doubt or verification, in short to a normal scientific approach.

Why has the industry been so gullible? No doubt out of fear, out of ignorance of a forgotten metallurgical industrial sector and for another anthropological reason. Companies have lost their checks and balances brought about by life experience. By dint of rejuvenating their teams by firing seniors, life experience has disappeared from organizational charts and risk management. Without this maturity, without this gravitas,the company whose princes are children has freed itself from the questioning of communicators and chroniclers ready to compromise in order to earn millions of dollars in financing for the infox of “ rare metals and a dark side of the energy transition “, it has also freed itself from the verification of the media which propagated the hoax by favoring sensationalism, deleterious emotion, caricature because they disseminated the anti-electric intoxication without examining, without studying the contradictory, without looking at the facts, without questioning themselves.

Today, we again need Movin’on to build this third community of interests.

Faced with the unknowns of energy transformation, this truth must be said about the dynamism of industry and science, which opposes media statism. Yes, we have an industrial backwardness compared to China, but yes there are enough mineral resources in the earth’s crust to transform our world with sustainability.

The solutions to quickly de-risk the situation are:

1) no longer thinking of resources in static media mode, but in industrial dynamic mode.

2) innovate through sustainable European mines, but also European factories for the transformation of ores into metals.

3) revoke the old badgers if they bring back defensive strategies, such as that of the synthetic gas. But, like the Ukrainian battalions, the company must again believe in the serenity, age and experience of seniors because they reduce the inexperience and anxiety to succeed of juniors.

4) contrary to rumor, it is technical progress that will save us from the horrors of climate change. Stay competitive by directing R&D, technical progress and innovation towards eco-design, metallic sobriety, substitution, sustainability and recycling and all in a sustainable way by using fewer critical metals and more abundant materials. This is how we are already on the road to mineral independence.