The Critical Role of Materials Science in Mining and Metals
The mining and metals sector has been central to human progress, driving technological innovations and shaping economies and societies for thousands of years. Encompassing an array of activities from extracting precious resources from deep within the Earth’s crust, to their transformation into essential materials for construction, manufacturing, energy production and more. From the Bronze Age through the Industrial Revolution, mining and metallurgy have been catalysts for human advancement, and today, they continue to evolve in response to ever-changing demands and environmental considerations. Technological advancement, automation and digitalisation are revolutionising the industry, creating new possibilities for efficiency and safety, all the while facing challenges of environmental stability, resource depletion and responsible mining practices. Goodfellow, a trusted global supplier of high-quality advanced materials and expert technical services, provides solutions to mining and metal sector challenges, applications and industry.
In industrialised societies, metals continue to play a pivotal role in manufactured parts across industries as varied as aerospace, automotive, consumer electronics, medicine, oil and gas exploration, mining, and more.
As the global economy prepares for net zero, the demand for raw materials will only increase. Cobalt and lithium used in battery electric vehicles — and mainly sourced through mining — are expected to power the green energy revolution.
In mining, metals such as silver, gold, iron, tin, cobalt, lead, lithium, and nickel are extracted from the Earth’s crust as ore and are subsequently processed for manufacturing or sale.
Besides the demands imposed by the green energy revolution, the mining industry faces an array of complex challenges in the form of supply chain risks, technological innovation, process equipment failures, and others.
Goodfellow offers more than 75 years of materials and processing expertise to help meet these challenges.
The Exponential Demand for Metals
The United Nations drive to reach net zero by 2050 requires a global shift from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources. However, green technologies themselves also generate intensive requirements in raw materials.
Supply chains and financing models are not adapting quickly enough to the new economic reality. The mining industry faces acute economic, technical, and political challenges in meeting the demand for the raw materials needed for the green energy revolution.
In fact, the World Bank has identified 17 separate minerals which, it believes, are central to the clean energy transition. Thus, mining and metals companies will have to show that they can meet this demand while navigating the complexities of supply chain bottlenecks, price fluctuations, extended lead times, ethical exploration, and more.
Metals will play a pivotal role in decarbonisation efforts as the global economy shifts from fossil fuels to solar, electric, wind, hydro, thermal, and other sustainable energy sources.
Most notably, battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs) will fuel a rapid rise in the demand for copper, nickel, manganese, lithium, and cobalt. Although BEVs are expected to account for roughly 90% of the demand for energy storage, solar, wind, and other technologies will also require storage: Vanadium plays an important role in storing these forms of static energy. Additionally, steel is often used in industrial applications.
The World Bank estimates that an increase of 9% in the demand for aluminium by 2030 translates into an additional 103 million tonnes to be sourced, surpassing the total global production of 2019. For more niche metals like Lithium and Cobalt, a 500% increase in demand is projected.
Faced with these seemingly unsurmountable challenges, it is tempting to think that recycling is the solution. However, even at optimal recycling rates, there remain significant shortfalls in the supply of raw materials.
All is not lost, however. For example, some reports suggest that 50% of the metals needed for Li-ion batteries in Europe could be met from unrecovered cobalt in nickel mines. Furthermore, Europe’s geological landscape lends itself to effective mining, for example, sourcing lithium from hard rock sources and brines. Elsewhere, deep ocean exploration could also open up opportunities for meeting most of the world’s demand for manganese, cobalt, nickel, and copper.
Challenges in Mining and Metals
It is now evident that the mining and metals sector is under growing pressure to supply the raw materials needed for the green energy revolution.
In the U.K., for example, switching from 31 million internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) to battery-electric vehicles will require nearly 208,000 tonnes of cobalt, twice the current annual production. Replacing the 1.4 billion ICEVs worldwide will require forty times that amount.
Furthermore, as significant contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions — 4% to 7% of global emissions — the mining and metals sector is also expected to contribute their fair share to the reduction of these emissions.
Rapid Technological Innovation in Mining and Metals
Technology and digital transformation are driving rapid changes in the mining sector: Drones are improving aerial surveys, sensors are enhancing the management of assets, and dampening technology is increasing the safety of exploration.
Mining companies need to keep pace with these technological advances to maximise productivity while adhering to stringent health, safety, and environmental regulations. Also, the mining sector is subject to long lead times (from discovery to production), exposing them to commodity demand fluctuations.
Supply Chain Risks in the Mining and Metals Sector
The global population growth — coupled with increasing urbanisation and industrialisation — is driving the rise in demand for raw materials.
Furthermore, many of the reserves identified for future exploration lie in developing economies where political instabilities and inadequate infrastructure — together with protectionism and growing resistance to globalisation — remain. For instance, 60% of the world’s cobalt is sourced as a by-product of copper mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where concerns about child labour and political upheavals prevail. Thus, the mining and metals sector will need to adapt to volatility in their supply chains.
Materials Challenges in Mining and Metals
Mining for metals is highly intensive, both in its requirement for consumable materials and for materials needed to manufacture drilling and other equipment.
This is because most extraction and processing activities involve acids or high temperatures, conditions ripe for corrosion, oxidation, metal fatigue, thermal flux, and abrasion. Thus, manufacturers face unique challenges in developing corrosion-resistant materials for mining.
Additionally, materials science plays a critical role in the treatment, remediation, and valorisation of the waste by-products resulting from mining operations.
Repeated failures of key processing equipment can prove costly for mining companies both in terms of lost production time and increased maintenance costs.
A materials specialist such as Goodfellow can apply its extensive metals expertise to assist mining and metals companies with materials selection — and design criteria optimisation — for demanding in-service applications. This substantially mitigates downtime risks while enhancing performance levels and throughput.
Metals Expertise from Goodfellow
The mining and metals sector often relies on the expertise of materials engineers and scientists to help them select the most appropriate materials for product development or research.
Cobalt, for example — found in wire, crystal, rod, foil and other forms — is a ferromagnetic, gray metal that is relatively unreactive and only slowly attacked by acids. Also, cobalt alloys are thermal and oxidation resistant, coupled with good mechanical strength.
Goodfellow is well placed to advise on materials selection and testing on large capital equipment projects in mining and metals.