Shifting from a Fuel-Intensive, to a Material-Intensive World

Ensuring resources for future generations will remain a challenge
Industry Matters Newsletter
 Mark E. Jones, PhD, Member, ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications and the Chemical Heritage Landmark Committee
Mark E. Jones, PhD, Member, ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications and the Chemical Heritage Landmark Committee

I am penning this standing in Nonesuch, Michigan. These days, Nonesuch would be more aptly named Notmuch. Not much is here today. Nonesuch is a ghost town, only a hint of the industrial activity that once occurred here. It actually isn’t much of a ghost town. Only foundations and relics remaining, no standing buildings from a bygone time. The name Nonesuch lives on in the rocks, in the name of a type of shale that outcrops in Michigan and Wisconsin. Deposited in the distant past, volcanic activity filled pores in the stone with finely divided elemental copper. It was said there was nonesuch copper anywhere else.  

Map of Nonesuch, Michigan

Today, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is an area of great beauty, seemingly untouched by man. That is a misperception. Mineral riches and lumber were exploited in much of the UP starting in the mid-1800s. The area was stripped largely bare by logging and fires. Trees found use as both building material and fuel, firing the recovery of iron and copper. Wildfires were the coup de grâce for the old growth forests. 

The speed with which cities were built and abandoned in the UP always staggers me. Fueled by immigrant labor, the mines consumed natural and human resources at an astounding rate. Then, one day, everyone would leave, triggered by the timber playing out, the minerals running out, or better opportunities found elsewhere. Nonesuch stopped being a town because everyone just left.

Standing in Nonesuch, there are man-made gashes into the earth. There are tailing piles. There are holes leading to vertical mine shafts. More than a century removed from active mining, the scars remain. 

I don’t think of mining often, but standing in Nonesuch, it becomes an inescapable thought. Sustainability is frequently on my mind. I make conscious efforts to reduce my carbon footprint. In Nonesuch, I realize I have a copper footprint. It is a footprint resulting from removing primordial resources – copper bearing rocks aren’t fossil resources – from the ground, making them inaccessible for future generations.   

A recent IEA report outlines a how a transition to cleaner energy requires more mineral resources. Copper, it declares, is “a cornerstone of all electricity-related technologies”. Nonesuch is a reminder mineral resources are finite. It is also a reminder they come with an environmental cost.    

Standing in Nonesuch, it is easy to see why mines are not popular neighbors. Even when mines make only small impacts on the surface, they face opposition. Yet, society’s need for minerals for clean energy and agriculture are only increasing. 

Nonesuch Mine Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park

The acute need for minerals caused by the rapid electrification of transportation was pointed out by a recent Nature article. Cars will hit the road with tens of kilograms of materials in their batteries, all materials yet to be mined. Typical amounts for a single car lithium-ion battery would contain approximately 8 kg of lithium, 35 kg of nickel, 20 kg of manganese and 14 kg of cobalt. As demand ramps up, nickel demand is expected to exceed 14%. Lithium and copper, 9-10%. The heading in the IEA report is quoted and sums up the issue concisely, “the shift from a fuel-intensive to a material-intensive energy system” is underway. 

Lithium is actually not that rare. Proved reserves are enough to get us to the middle of the century. Proved lithium reserves, just as with oil reserves, are those that can, theoretically, be economically produced. Market price impacts proved reserves, with higher prices increasing reserves. Technology improvement can increase reserves. 

Nickel, manganese and cobalt all present challenges. Projected demand will strain supply. The quest to supply that demand is already looking at new technologies. Ocean nodules are again under study. 

Recycling looms large. Fortunately, the two of the biggest recycling success stories are related to automotive use. Lead and iron are recycled at higher rates than any other recycled materials. We’ve already proven we can recycle car batteries. 99% are already recycled, making them the most recycled consumer good. 

The recycling for elemental metals is considerably different than for plastic, so different that I found myself envious. Recycling lead and iron involves high temperatures. Lead is smelted, iron reduced.  Zero-valent, elemental metals are produced. There is nothing finicky about it, no attempt to retain elegant structures.   

Recycling lithium-ion batteries today is similar to lead and iron recycling. While some propose disassembly, washing, and separating individual components, the safety and economics favor metallurgical refining today. Metallurgical refining also is accepting of changing battery chemistries, providing flexibility as future advances are made.

Moving from today’s fuel-intensive world to the material intensive world we’re heading toward will require many changes. The fuel intensive world pulls resources from the ground, making them unavailable for future generations. The material intensive world will similarly rob future generations of access to resources in the ground. We must ensure we retain those resources in an accessible form for future generations. Exactly what recycling does. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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