Metals are absolute necessary for the whole society

Professor Ari Jokilaakso

(1.2.21) "There is no electricity without metals, no smartphones, no hygienic food production in quantities needed for the population, no transportation, and no possibilities for electric cars without metals", professor Ari Jokilaakso of Aalto University states.

 

 

Ari Jokilaakso is associate professor of metallurgy in Aalto University in Finland. He answered to Mining Finland's questions regarding the importance of metals.

  1. Why metals are important to Finland's well-being?

World needs metals.

Metals are a prerequisite for modern life, so not only important to Finland, but absolutely necessary for the whole mankind and the society as we have today. There is no electricity without metals, no smartphones, no surgical instruments, no hygienic food production in quantities needed for the population, no transportation, and no possibilities for electric cars, wind turbines or solar cells without metals. Metals make the current well-being possible for us, globally.

To Finland’s well-being metals are very important as the metals sector (metals and metallic products) accounts for some 44 % of our industrial production with annual turnover of 44 billion euros, and giving jobs directly for 149 000 people (2019).

  1. Is it important to mine metals in Finland?

Metals can only be mined from where they are.

The very characteristic for metals is that their raw materials, minerals, can only be mined where ‘Mother Earth’ has them. So, we cannot mine them from locations convenient for us. And they are not evenly distributed in the earth’s crust, but there are areas having more of them or more of some specific mineral types. Finland is a special place in Europe as we still have a lot of minerals that are feasible to be utilized, thus called as ores; there are not that many mines or ore bodies elsewhere in Europe. If we don’t search and utilize ore bodies in Finland, the self-sufficiency of Europe in many critical metals is endangered as the global trade is often used for political aspirations.

Conditions for mining in Finland are also more advanced than in many developing countries, we have stricter regulations (although there are debates coming and going whether they are strict enough or not), stable society, good infrastructure, and own metals production plants. With the fast booming, no longer emerging, battery metal industry benefits of concentrated value chain where raw materials are mined with short distances to metals, precursors and battery production plants and even car manufacturers.

  1. The demand for metals has varied over time. What are the metals, which demand will increase in the future?

The prevention of the climate change needs metals.

The demand for base metals, such as e.g. iron and steel, copper, nickel, and aluminum, has been growing steadily over cycles on the average two to three percentages per annum as the developing countries are building their economies and infrastructures. In the developed countries, the demand of these metals has been rather flat for several decades. However, there are many new metals whose demand has started to soar with the struggle against the climate change. It is very clear that e.g. copper, nickel, and steel are needed more as the number of electric cars and wind turbines are increasing. Producing the energy and transporting it to electric cars’ loading stations, and inside the cars, will increase the demand for copper. The current battery technologies are needing a lot of lithium, nickel and cobalt. Therefore, the demand of all these metals can be predicted to increase rapidly during the coming decade, at least. What makes the predictions difficult is that new, alternative, energy storage technologies are needed and developed which are or may be dependent on different metals. On the other hand, this is also a must as some metals don’t have enough known reserves or their production capacity is simply lagging behind the forecasted demand.

What is almost totally lacking in the current discussion of “green” or renewable energy, is that their production technologies, such as wind turbines, require a lot of new metals (such as Rare Earth Elements, REE) and in large quantities. The current share of global energy production by renewable energy is so minor that any major increase in it will require such amounts of many metals that it is hard to believe that their respective production capacity would be increased fast enough. Naturally, the energy needed for producing these metals must be based on the renewable sources – and there we have an accelerating loop! Furthermore, the required investments in the new technology are enormous and would require more responsible investors and governmental incentives with political consensus in such a way that is difficult to have faith in.

While writing this, there is a master of science thesis work ongoing under my supervision in Aalto University, where we will have a critical review on metals needed in traffic electrification and in technologies for renewable energies (mainly wind power). Already the preliminary results indicate that most metals will experience a shortage of primary production capacity within 5 – 10 years time. The amount of batteries coming to their end of life in high enough number and returning in metals production by recycling will bring help only after ten or so years. Also, there are metals that have their known resources and reserves so low that they will run out within a decade or two (e.g. cobalt and dysprosium), if the bold demand increase scenarios will come true.

 

  1. Metals can be recycled forever. How recycling of metals can be promoted? How much of the demand of metals can be covered with recycling?

Metals can be recycled forever, but more importantly metals must be recycled forever!

Currently, waste electric and electronic equipment (WEEE) are produced ca. 52 million tons every year and the amount is increasing a couple of tons per annum. Of this only 20 % is recycled and the rest is lost in, e.g., landfills. When analyzing the scenarios of the most important metals demand in the coming decades, it is clear that the primary production is not enough to satisfy the demand, but recycling is necessary to bridge the gap; steel and aluminum perhaps being the only exceptions as having already effectively functioning recycling.

How to improve the situation with metals recycling? The very first thing is to get this situation understood by politicians, investors, and ordinary people. And the simple message is: Climate can only be saved with the help of metals and there will be enough them only when all of them are recycled as much as practically possible! There must be campaigns and clear communication, and visible people, or opinion leaders, speaking about this. Why not introducing also a reward system so that there would be a concrete and immediate benefit for a consumer when bringing a metal containing end-of-life equipment to recycling.

Looking for the forecasted metals need shows clearly that with the predicted average demand increase, the current primary production of many metals should be doubled which is only possible by having almost 100 % recycling rate. So, I would say that, on the average, half of the future demand for the metals must be covered by recycling.

Flash smelting furnace

Components of the flash smelting furnace

  1. How the Finnish metallurgical research ranks internationally? What are the most recent innovations in the field?

Finnish metallurgical research and knowledge are world class.

The metals produced in Finland today are based on most advanced technology, leading by example in low emissions with high quality and productivity. This is based on efficient and uncompromising scientific research work in Finnish universities and research institutions or private company research centers. The research groups in Aalto University (Metallurgy) and University of Oulu (Process Metallurgy) are amongst the top metallurgical research groups in the world focusing mainly on non-ferrous and ferrous metallurgy, respectively.

This metallurgical research work has been conducted in a very close collaboration between the universities and metals producers in Finland. During 1980s, this collaboration started more systematic era when the Finnish Steel and Metals Producers started research with joint public (Tekes, today Business Finland) and corporate funded research projects. Since then, there has been a series of large projects with developing themes towards less emissions, higher productivity, and better quality metallurgical processes and metals.

This kind of a research collaboration has resulted in an abundant scientific literature written by the research groups in the Finnish universities with some of them being coauthored by industry experts. The nature of this kind of a collaboration is to produce together more understanding of the fundamentals of the processes. This new knowledge and insight have then been utilized and applied in developing the industrial processes as a continuous effort. Therefore, there has not been that many individual innovations as such, but, rather, continuous improvement. This is a rare strength of the Finnish metallurgical community; there are no competitors and all corporations are working together in the research consortia. The most recent one has just been granted funding from Business Finland: Towards Carbon Neutral Metals, TOCANEM, and in the near future there will be more communication coming from the consortium partners.

  1. Professor Jokilaakso, you are specialized in pyrometallurgy. Can you explain in a few words what is pyrometallurgy and why it is important?

Pyrometallurgy means production of metals by melting minerals and separating the metals from other elements at high temperatures.

More specifically, pyrometallurgy means extraction of metals from their minerals by burning with oxygen or reducing with carbon or hydrogen. Most of the ores are sulphidic or oxidic, so in pyrometallurgical processes the metals are separated from sulphur or oxygen with the help of thermal energy (at temperatures above, say 1000 °C), and oxygen (oxidizing sulphur to sulphur dioxide) or carbon and hydrogen (reducing the oxide to metal and CO2 or H2O).

The demand for many metals is so high that only pyrometallurgical processes are efficient enough and having high throughput and capacity to produce these metals in quantities matching the demand. The high temperatures are also needed for melting end-of-life scrap as raw material; for example, stainless steel and tool steels in Finland are produced from steel scrap.

Photo on the top: Kukka-Maaria Rosenlund/Aalto University