In La Tribune 07/11/2022
I was recently invited by the Center for Analysis, Forecasting and Strategy (CAPS) of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs to a roundtable discussion on “France and the demand for critical minerals and the instrumentalization of “scarcity” internationally: what dependencies?”
Here are my thoughts on the issue.
In early 2012, more than 10 years ago, I was invited by the Institut de France and announced for the first time in Europe to its academics that the world was switching from a dependence on hydrocarbons to a dependence on metals. But I did not expect at the time that this announcement would provoke so many hoaxes.
In other times, the train was accused of making the cows’ milk turn, the telephone of attracting evil spirits, the light bulb of making you blind, the radio of making it rain, the snow of causing drought.
Today, the “rare metals” fake news will have tried to demonstrate that the electric car will destroy the earth because a Prius polluted more than a Hummer, that the “green car had a red battery”, that 225 tons were needed to produce a battery, that an electric lignite excavator in Germany was transformed into a lithium excavator in the Andes, and whereas 100 years ago the ICE car was accused of being reserved for the rich, today the electric car is accused of the same evil.
All these legends were fake news, because “rare metals” do not exist.
Since my early days in the strategic metallurgical industry, I have classified metals into three categories.
An abundant metal was sought and discovered by a dynamic industrial fabric and inventive diplomacy. Then a range of technologies proved expedient to extract it from the ground, refine it and, through eco-design, to consume it in decreasing unit quantities and increasing uses. Finally, it is recycled. If one of the previous steps is slightly or temporarily defective, it can become a sensitive metal.
It will become a critical metal if there is a high geological risk of a shortage of supply in relation to demand because there is no scientific breakthrough leading to alternative solutions. It will also be critical if there is no longer any natural resource diplomacy favoring access and increased mineral production. But again, if the unit quantities of metal to be recycled become so small that recycling will fail because it will not have a good yield and will therefore be very expensive.
However, this metal will be critical in one industry, but not in another, in one country, but not in another, and this changes over time. Platinum will be critical in the ion exchange membranes needed to run fuel cells in hydrogen vehicles, but not in the 100% electric car.
Supply and demand balances
Prudent producers or consumers with long memories will regularly question the supply and demand balances of these metals, otherwise the danger is to freeze the abundant or critical character, without temporal dynamics. Furthermore, if a metal is a by-product of another metal, observation of the latter’s equilibria is essential. South African chromium used in steel is a by-product of platinum, so the dynamism of its production will be subject to the demand for platinum in catalytic converters, jewelry or hydrogen mobility rather than its own consumption in the steel industry.
A strategic material is political. It is not based on geological or market criteria. It is a resource that is essential to the regalian missions of the State, to national defense or to the fundamental political ambitions of a consumer or producer country. Iron ore is abundant, but it has been very strategic for China and its steel production for its urbanization policy. Since the war in Ukraine, all metals have become strategic again, as they are consumed in the arms industry.
If the last two notions, critical and strategic, merge, that is, if geology and politics merge, this will lead to two phenomena. On the one hand, a destruction of demand, since the metal is “unobtainable” and its price is high. On the other hand, competitive consumption is required, i.e. political and economic competition between different uses of this metal, which requires the producer to always choose the consumer closest to his own strategic objectives: this choice is generally made by the State, which first favors its national industry. Here again, the invasion of Ukraine is a revealing example: Russian gas is in a competitive situation.
The role of the Texas oil lobby
In this hierarchy, no minerals or metals are classified as what the media or politics have ignorantly referred to as “rare metals,” because that category does not exist. Its appearance since 2017 is only the result of environmental and conspiracy fake news promoted to counter the electric car. Funded in millions of dollars by a Texas pro-oil lobby, its creators voluntarily mixed rare earths that exist but were under fire in China, and “rare metals” hoaxes. Relayed in France with impunity, the infox aimed to discredit the mine, its jobs and its professions, then the refining and metallurgical plants and finally the electric car, considered dangerous by the Texas lobby.
The “rare metals” hoax is the intellectual swindle built to counter the electrical transition. It is geological wokism, the anti-science and climato-skeptic nothingness par excellence. So yes, as the question from the round table indicates, the scarcity of “rare metals” is an instrumentalization, it borders on a conspiracy.
Moreover, 2022 shows that the party is over for “rare metals” and their promoters, since the war waged in Ukraine by Russia, the world leader in many metals, has not triggered a war over “rare metals”, but a war over gas. Beside, Russian nickel and aluminum exports to Europe increased between March and June 2022 by 22% and 13% respectively and to the United States by 21% and 70%. As for China, its exports of rare earths have increased by 6.3% in 2022 compared to 2021.
This introduction to the objective of discredit initiated by the “rare metals” fake news is very nuanced given the twisted means that it has used, but which remain to be revealed although they are known. Necessary introduction, because in parallel the reality of the metal industries of the electrical transition is very different. It also demonstrates in practice that “rare metals” do not exist.
Rare earths are no longer indispensable
I note that thanks to efforts and education, the opening of a lithium mine in France is well underway. Lithium is an abundant material in the earth’s crust, and there is some in France.
Permanent magnets without rare earths free the electric motor industry from Chinese hands. This discovery also has the rebound effect of freeing the industry from an overconsumption of copper. Rare earths, which are not rare, are no longer indispensable.
In my companies, I have experienced a division of platinum consumption by 6 for the same product and in other tools a gigantic quantitative change linked to the replacement of massive platinum alloys by sputtering. Progress means saving metals, not the other way around.
In 2022, automotive catalysis consumes 30% less platinum than in 2012, but the same amount of platinum is recycled as in 2012; while it consumes 25% more palladium and recycles 50% more than in 2012. The recycling of electric car batteries, which is already operational, will also continue to progress.
Elon Musk preferred the battery car because its energy efficiency is 3 times higher than that of the hydrogen car. The latter has no future without an overabundance of electricity, but it is interesting for high-carbon transport: maritime, rail or heavy vehicles,
As I announced nine years ago, Germany is returning to nuclear power, and the failure of Berlin’s gas industry is the powerful engine that is putting Parisian nuclear power back on the path it took 50 years ago. Discussing the circular economy of nuclear power in France is therefore no longer forbidden since a few people have listened and understood that the stock of “nuclear waste” stored in the Manche department will be the fuel of tomorrow’s closed circuit. It will be burned and destroyed while producing autonomous and sovereign electricity for 5,000 to 10,000 years, without recourse to uranium mining or producing waste, thus comforting the environmentalists. The future of nuclear power lies in the circular economy of nuclear power before moving towards nuclear fusion, the energy of the stars, whose advent has recently accelerated.
The manufacture of cultured diamonds in France, China or the United States to replace natural diamonds is a scientific breakthrough that will have applications in quantum technologies. Diamonds themselves are not rare and new techniques are enabling technological progress.
A phone on wheels
Some people disparage the electric car as a telephone on wheels. This is a poor comparison when you think of the telephone of 2022 compared to the cell phones of the 1990s. They are smaller, more efficient and less metal-intensive, the electric car will follow the same path: lighter, more efficient, more autonomous.
Its batteries were in fact charged with cobalt, then with nickel, today the LFP battery without cobalt or nickel is charged with abundant materials. It is now used by Tesla, Toyota, BYD, BMW… Let’s note in passing that this sovereignty technology patented at the CNRS by Michel Armand has been sold by… the CNRS and that it is… China that has developed it and then deployed it internationally as soon as the patent rights have fallen on September 21, 2021. Technical progress, with batteries without lithium, but sodium and manganese, will further reduce the cost of batteries. There is therefore little doubt that the production of electric vehicles will meet the demand of the ecological transition at affordable prices.
There is no such thing as “rare metals”, as the industry has shown, and as the deciphering of its origin goes back to Texas oil lobby.
I have long wondered how French politicians act under the influence of such fake news. The answer is that they are acting quite badly. They have been fooled by the pitreries of communicators at the behest of “rare metals”, blinded by oil money or a childish desire for notoriety. Without any professional experience in metallurgy or mining, they waved and repeated without understanding the results of biased studies financed by millions of Texan dollars, such as the one pitting the Prius against the Hummer.
European Union officials have been intoxicated ad nauseam by the scam, in particular because they have integrated “rare metals” moles into their teams. These communicators, camped in the same pitreries of static communication, have freely allowed their harmful influences to flourish in Brussels, whereas industrial Europe is counter-intuitive and dynamic.
Is this why a state of mind far from reality and anti-science has been so noticeable in our administrations and in Brussels? It is undoubtedly to answer this question that we are gathered here today, because CAPS and the Ministry are rightly wondering.
To conclude, the fake news about “rare metals” is looking more and more like the endless discussions about peak oil on the supply side, when it was necessary to anticipate peak oil on the demand side. Another truth hidden from the political staff by this swindle is that if industry is hindered by a restriction, an embargo, a war or a hoax, it does not remain in a static pittance, but frees itself in three phases: Crisis, Innovation, and Substitution.
The crisis is the direct consequence of the “rare metals” swindle. It is our industrial delays in the energy transition that require reindustrialization and the social breakage linked to our procrastination in electric mobility. Innovation and substitution, it is the use of more abundant natural resources or in smaller quantities that will limit the interest of critical metal lists.
The scarcity of “rare metals” was indeed an instrumentalization, a swindle, an intoxication.