Supply chain security for critical metals is a growing concern, and not just for governments across the globe, but for consumer companies, consumers… everyone really.
The term ‘critical’ simply describes metals that we cannot do without rather than those which are scarce (there’s a nice explanation here if you’re interested).
It’s mainly used to describe metals that are ‘critical’ to the low-carbon energy transition – for instance, copper, cobalt, lithium, nickel etc. But, of course, different metals are critical to every industrial application and technology.
The creation of clean energy technologies, including wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles and batteries for energy storage requires a variety of minerals and metals. The International Energy Agency explained that the type and volume of minerals needed ranges across different clean energy technologies, and even within specific technologies, such as electric-vehicle battery chemistries.
In a 2020 report, the World Bank postulated that the production of minerals, such as graphite, lithium and cobalt, could increase by 500% by 2050, to meet this growing demand. It goes on to estimate that over three billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed for cleantech in a below 2°C future
While it’s impossible to predict the exact quantities of metals and minerals required, the availability of certain ones will undoubtably be a limiting factor in how quickly and to what extent some of these technologies can be deployed. For instance, copper is a metal that is both critical and scarce, and shortages are already looming.
Rethinking value chains
It’s clear that a fresh approach to mineral value chains, inclusive of mine permitting, development, production and metals processing, is needed if the world is to stand a chance at meeting its climate change mitigation goals.
With this in mind, I sat down with Todd Malan, Chief External Affairs Officer and Head of Climate Strategy at Talon Metals and a 10-year veteran of Rio Tinto’s external facing functions, in early December to talk about supply chain evolution, and how mines and mining companies can be part of the solution rather than the problem.
“The world is at an extraordinary time, and there is a confluence of issues that are highlighting the need for more secure supply chains,” Malan told me. “One is the growing need to transition from a fossil fuel-centred energy system to a minerals-centred energy system in the fight against climate change. There is a public imperative there to which governments are reacting.
“But critical metal supplies are also a national security issue. In the US, decoupling from the Chinese supply chain for battery materials is one of the only points where there’s bipartisan consensus. This is not that exceptional; China has made it a priority to diversify its supply of iron-ore over the last 20 years. No country wants to be beholden to only one place for the supply of crucial materials.
“These issues coming together mean that there’s now consensus across the political spectrum in places like the US, Canada, Australia and the EU, that the supply of critical metals and minerals is a national priority.”
Talon Metals is currently working to bring the Tamarack Nickel project in Minnesota, US, to production, with the aim of providing a domestic source of nickel for the battery supply chain in North America. The company sees being part of an integrated supply chain as a vital element.
“Mining opponents often think that the industry will be against battery recycling. But, in reality, we’re all for it,” said Malan. “Recycling is not the solution to future battery metals supplies, but it’s an important part of the solution.
“It’s not possible to recycle our way to the scale of supply that’s needed from 2022 to 2045. Lots more primary materials will be required but, by making better use of recycling, reuse and traceability we can reduce the impact of primary extraction on people and the planet.
“Fundamental changes to the transportation sector – autonomous vehicles, ride sharing etc. – may also reduce the size of the total vehicle fleet.”
Community consultation: listen, learn and refine
Malan believes that environmental and social governance (ESG) is the potential Achilles heel of the energy transition; if people feel that critical metal supplies are being secured through cutting environmental corners, or that communities haven’t had their say or see economic benefits in the transition, then plans to meet demand will fail.
“For every new initiative in this massive shift in the energy system, companies need to spend time and resources to understand their host communities’ concerns and then find ways to try to address those concerns,” said Malan.
As a result of feedback from the community in water-rich central Minnesota where the Tamarack deposit was discovered, Talon recently announced that it will decouple its mineral processing and tailings management facilities from the Tamarack site, building them instead at an existing industrial site in Mercer County, North Dakota. This site is significantly drier and has access to key inputs required for an innovative approach to managing tailings waste.
The company was awarded US$114 million in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding from the US Department of Energy (DoE) for the new facilities which it said, “will create a new domestic battery-grade nickel and iron production capability designed to meet the timelines set in both the Biden Administration’s National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries and the Tesla-Talon agreement entered into on January 7, 2022”.
“We can’t help where Mother Nature puts high-grade nickel deposits,” said Malan. “But what companies like Talon can do is listen to community concerns and make changes that, at least in part, address those concerns.
“Communities close to the Tamarack deposit had understandable concerns about the risk of acid generation from long-term exposure of sulphide ores to oxygen and water at surface. Processing of ores and long-term storage of tailings waste were two of the biggest areas of concerns and, as a result, we started to look at new approaches.
“After examining 18 potential sites, we selected Mercer County for its rail infrastructure that easily connects to the mine site, its dry environment, industrial location and access to raw material (fly ash) that facilitates a new approach to tailings management.
“By moving the processing and tailings management away from the mine site, it meant we could also reduce the total footprint for the underground mine to approximately 50 acres of land disturbance. The mine site will now cover entrances to the underground mine, offices, rail loading facility, water treatment plant and backfill materials storage.”
In North Dakota, the sulphidic mine tailings will be combined with fly ash from nearby coal-fired power plants (to neutralise them) and dry stacked to eliminate any potential for acid generation from long standing exposure to oxygen and water. The tailings will be contained in a lined impoundment area where the material will be both inert and cemented.
Malan explained: “Mercer County’s economy has traditionally been highly dependent on coal mining and energy generation from coal. Our facility will bring 150 new union jobs linked to the US battery supply chain which is an important contribution to diversifying the local economy.
“We’re aiming to finalise our agreement with the DoE in Q2 2023, and the environmental review process for the underground mine and rail loading operations at Tamarack will begin early next year too.”
Bringing carbon sequestration into the mix
As we were on the subject of tailings, I also wanted to ask about carbon sequestration.
In February 2022, the US DoE awarded US$2.2 million of research and development funding to Talon Metals and its joint venture partner, Rio Tinto, to explore the carbon storage potential at Tamarack. Rio is also contributing US$4 million in funding for the three-year project.
The orebody at Tamarack consists of ultramafic rocks which have a natural ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere – a process known as carbon mineralisation.
“We’re running two different scientific studies,” Malan told me. “We’re working with Professor Greg Dipple at the University of British Columbia to develop a process that would turn our tailings into a sink for carbon that is either captured from the atmosphere or from an industrial process. This leverages the natural reaction between the rocks and carbon dioxide, converting the carbon dioxide to a solid carbonate mineral.
“Rio Tinto is also looking at the possibility of in-situ carbon mineralisation for an area of the Tamarack deposit that doesn’t contain a lot of nickel but does have olivine sand which could potentially store carbon through that same natural reaction. If the laboratory science proves successful, there is potential to explore carbon mineralisation at large scale, similar to what Carbfix is doing in Iceland with basaltic rocks.
“This is all still at the lab work phase, but it could be another way for Talon to be at the forefront of, not only the battery supply chain, but also carbon removal from the atmosphere and permanent storage through carbon mineralisation.”
Innovation & exploration
A value chain-wide approach to critical metals also considers exploration and, in September 2022, Talon announced it had teamed up with Fleet Space Technologies to pilot Fleet’s ExoSphere rapid mineral exploration solution at its projects in Minnesota and Michigan.
The satellite-enabled mineral exploration technology scans the ground using an advanced seismic tomography technique, called Ambient Noise Tomography (ANT), where transportable ‘Geode’ devices listen to faint background vibrations from natural and man-made sources. The data is then processed rapidly and transmitted from anywhere in the world through Fleet’s constellation of low-earth orbit satellites, recently launched by SpaceX.
“We’re very excited about our work with Fleet and the prospect of speeding up the discovery process,” said Malan. “The value proposition of Fleet’s technology lies in the reduction of land disturbance by improving orebody targeting and identification. Again, we’re still in early stages of field testing, but the prospect of reducing land disturbance and increasing our accuracy is exciting.”
Malan credits Talon’s innovative spirit to its CEO, Henri van Rooyen, who he said, “has a true innovation mindset and isn’t afraid to try different approaches”. Widespread adoption of that ethos is required for the mining sector to meet the requirements of a mineral-centred energy system.
“But it’s not just about changing mining processes and mining companies,” Malan reminded me. “Civil society has to change too so that we can move the conversation away from ‘yes or no’, to ‘how and where’.
“We need to work together to meet the challenge of climate change while making sure communities are part of broad-based economic benefits and that we protect the environment.”