Richard Herrington, head of the Earth Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum in London, has spent his career in mining and mineralogy. In this episode, he explains why electric vehicles and other alternative-energy technologies are “resource hungry,” the enormous volumes of minerals like copper, lithium, dysprosium, and neodymium that will be needed to move from the global economy from “carbon to minerals and metals,” China’s dominance of the critical minerals market, and why societies will have to make hard choices about where and how to mine the metals needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, and welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert rice. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And my guest today is Richard Harrington. He is the head of the Earth Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum in London. Dr. Harrington, welcome to the power hungry podcast.
Richard Herrington 0:20
Now, thank you very much, Robert, thanks for inviting me to take part.
Robert Bryce 0:24
So I did warn you that I have my guests introduce themselves, you have a long CV and a PhD and a whole lot of other things. You had a career in geology and mining, if you don’t mind, please introduce yourself, I’ll
Richard Herrington 0:35
give you have a very brief resume. So yeah, I trained as a as a as a geologist, a mining geologist, way back in the 1980s. I then went to work in the the mining industry for a period of time before. So that was working for a Canadian exploration company who were actually seeking new metal resources. And I spent a lot of time in that business. I then went back to university to study the science in more detail, I became much more interested in, in the science behind how deposits were formed and where they were located. So I then I went back to university, and I completed a PhD. And I’ve come to the Natural History Museum where I picked up a career in, in research that was focused on indeed looking at new sources of metals, where they might occur in the crust. But then also more laterally, I’ve been working on things that have making exploration more effective, reducing the footprint of finding those new metals, also improving the recovery of metals, so looking for technologies that would improve recovery, but also how I can use my science of mineral mineralogy. So I’m my sort of key skill is mineralogy, understanding minerals and the metals that are within them. And how can I use that skillset to get better recovery from the existing materials, and then more laterally, we’ve been starting to work on how do we make mining more effective, its legacy more effective, basically, trying to avoid the kind of waste that we might have seen in some legacy mines, historically, that have got an obviously an incredibly bad press. But obviously, a new industry has to do things in a way that leaves a sustainable legacy. And so that’s part of what I’m doing now. And so that’s kind of all LinkedIn to now the the demand for metals and minerals as has skyrocketed as a result of us. revolutionising our energy business. So we’re effectively moving from a carbon based energy economy, to effectively a metals, minerals based energy economy with renewable technologies, all of which need materials, metals, and minor elements to make them work. And so
Robert Bryce 3:13
I like the way you put that from carbon to minerals and metals. And that was what that was where I first came across, you’re sorry to interrupt, but that was where I first came across your name was this June 3 2019 letter that you co authored with seven of your colleagues to the committee on climate change. And I then wrote about it the New York Post, and I’ve written about it several times since then. So if you don’t mind, since, you know, the listeners of the podcast don’t aren’t familiar with this letter. Can you give a quick summary of what you what you wrote in that letter?
Richard Herrington 3:43
Yeah, basically pointed out, just did a very simple calculation for the United Kingdom, taking the statistic that we have 31 and a half million internal combustion engine vehicles, privately owned vehicles in the United Kingdom. So I just did the calculation of, of converting all of those cars swapping, one for one for an electric vehicle. And with the current technologies, as we know them work out what was the material need for replacing our vehicles, and not to put too fine a point on it? It basically took, you know, a couple of years of world production of lithium, I think it’s several times the production of the annual production of cobalt, a significant increase in the amount of copper up to sort of 10 or 12% increase in the amount of copper that we’ve mined in a year, just really to replace the motor vehicles that are in the United Kingdom, one for one, and, you know, scaling that up worldwide. If we took all the cars that we know that privately owned, you multiply that by 40 times to get the rest of the world to convert all their internal combustion engine vehicles to battery electric vehicles. So it was really opening people’s eyes to the fact that we need those metals to make those cars because, you know, every electric vehicle has a lot more copper, because it’s got copper wiring. Batteries are using lithium and cobalt. And so a lot of metals are common. So,
Robert Bryce 5:27
you know, and the other the other things I’m not saying metals, but right and the other ingredient of course, in the in the EVS, right is that is the rare earth elements, the neodymium praseodymium, lamp lanthanum all the ones?
Richard Herrington 5:41
That’s correct, that’s, uh, you know, you need a year about three quarters of the year’s production for that for the, and that’s, that’s in the drive train. So the electric motors that are in a, you know, the average electric vehicle needs those needs those special rare earth elements in the drive train. So you’re absolutely correct, there’s a whole range of different things that are there, as a result of you taking the power plant, you know, the, the hydrocarbon power plant out and putting an electric power plant, right. But then, you know, the other thing then did a calculation, of course, they’re all those electric vehicles, they have to recharge themselves. So you know, you drive them and overnight, you have to charge them or whatever, and just did the calculation on that the UK would need to up its generation of electricity by about 20%. So that you need to actually, even the, the current electrical supply, which is coming from a range of, of technologies, obviously, we would need to increase the terawatt hours of power generation by about 20%. For UK. And again, you would factor that in that would be the same for every other country, you know, sure us.
Robert Bryce 6:51
Well, it seemed that that last part seems particularly relevant now, given that Britain’s in a full on energy crisis. I mean, it is just these these are all things that seemed to be coming to the head at the same moment. No,
Richard Herrington 7:01
no. I mean, it is rather unfortunate that yeah, we’ve the moment they Well, you know, the gas deliveries to the gas stations as is a full of not enough drivers, apparently, and actually out there, it’s all dying down a little bit, because people got a bit excited that that fuel might be on short supply, and they kind of went out and filled their cars up. Right. You know, there’s the gas situation. Because, obviously, a lot of our power generation, we closed our coal fired power stations, we’ve got a lot of gas fired power stations. But we are seeing a squeeze on gas supplies at the moment. And you’re absolutely right, that is we’ve got rocketing prices. It’s putting a squeeze on on the UK. And actually, the acceleration to other forms of power generation would seem attractive at the moment, if we could get more renewables into the frame. That would be great. But you know, we haven’t got that built infrastructure just yet. So we are still reliant on gas at the moment.
Robert Bryce 8:05
Sure. So I just want to repeat what you said here, because it’s from your June 2019 letter to the committee on climate change. And just to restate what you said about about the number if you wanted to replace all the vehicles in the UK with EVs, you listed the number of tonnes of neodymium dysprosium 22 point 3 million tons of copper, this represents just under two times the total annual World cobalt Production Production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters of the world’s lithium, and at least half the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only for 2035 is pledged will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry. I mean, these are just daunting numbers. I mean, by any way that you slice it, and then we’re talking about just for the UK, and I’ve done some Go ahead.
Richard Herrington 8:58
No, no, you’re correct. I mean, I will correct the cup that because the letter unfortunately had an error on recover. It’s it’s not it’s it’s it’s about 10 or 12% of the proper production not It’s not two times so that was the two times was if we scaled it up to the whole plant world lac. Unfortunate that type of got into there, but those other figures that you just quoted to me, correct. So yeah, it’s two times it’s two times the cobalt, I think I said twice lithium, but I mean, cobalt, and it’s about three quarters for for lithium, but you know, substantial evening. In relative terms, it’s it’s high but in in real terms, you know, an extra two and a half million tons of copper. It’s not, it’s not a small amount, and then you build on top of that the, the metal that you need for the power infrastructure for recharging and renewables if it increases on top of that.
Robert Bryce 9:56
Well, so let me ask the obvious question here because I will and I’ll just I get some calculations based on yours and, and maybe the copper numbers may be off. But I figured that then extrapolating your numbers to the US that electrifying and I published this number of times just half of the US auto fleet converting the EVS will require in rough terms, nine times current annual cobalt production three times global lithium, and 2x. Global copper. Now, so the copper numbers may be a little high, but I guess the reason I wanted to have you on was just the on the podcast to talk about these things, because it is this it seems, the numbers that you’re talking in both absolute terms and in percentage terms just seem you know, leave me slack jawed I mean, is this even possible that global mining output your this is your field can respond and respond in a way that is significant. And when we see since 2019, I looked it up, the price of copper is more than doubled. The China has made it clear they’re going to take care of their own rare earth element needs first, before they export. Is this even doable? I guess is the thing that keeps coming back to my head, when I look at all this talk about energy transition, and the rest of it, especially now, as Europe is using more coal, the Chinese or Indians are burning more coal, there seems to be in fact a retrenchment and going the other direction. So I’ll restate the question. Is this even possible to to scale up global mining to the point where to achieve the numbers that you’ve laid out back in 2019? And again, in the piece that you published in Nature Reviews materials in May?
Richard Herrington 11:29
Yeah, well, it is a serious challenge. I mean, what I would argue is that we we can do that. But what it does need is us to develop on stream. Choice of supply. Because, you know, one of the big issues we’ve got at the moment is that car production, you know, example for, for Cobalt is coming from, from Central Africa, mainly. And in case of lithium, we’ve got supply from South America, and Australia. Now, with regards to this, just take lithium scaling up lithium production in Australia is is possible, but not to the not to provide everything that we need. Likewise, in South America, there are issues of scaling up there, because there are some environmental issues relating to water. So if we scale up there, and it’s going to create serious issues, that it may well be that the regulator’s won’t permit that scaling up. So what indeed we need to do is to make sure that we bring other resources and we know geologically, those resources exist, but it does need concerted effort to make sure they’re brought into the mix of supply. And you know, in the case of lithium, that is actually happening, because we’re seeing example, in the United Kingdom, people are exploring for lithium in Cornwall, with there’s a big deposit in Serbia that Rio Tinto been sitting on for a number of years, which is now actually going ahead because they realize that this is the right time to get this into production. So we know that there are some alternate what’s happening Africa is, that’s also a place that could scale up cobalt production. And people in the past have been worried about child labor issues in the supply chains. And what we’ve seen actually is that there’s been an improvement in being able to secure those supply chain to make sure that we don’t get cobalt that’s coming from, from child labor into the supply chain. So to some degree, we are seeing an ability to scale up and with with. But the problem that we’ve had is, with the code, the addition of the COVID crisis has slowed down production of a lot of these things, and then the trends shipping. So we have had probably a couple of years of of cre essence in in that sort of growth. So I I do I share your concerns with being able to deliver that on time? I see. No, I see no reason why we can’t scale out but it needs a it needs to have concerted effort and be you know, we really need to be get getting at it now. So they’re consumer
Robert Bryce 14:16
conservatives. So sorry to interrupt but a concerted effort, but it’s also we’re talking about 10s of billions, hundreds of billions of dollars of investment. I mean, I mean, what on what if we’re talking about doubling, tripling lithium doubling, tripling cobalt, and maybe doubling or tripling tripling copper? I mean, these are gonna require massive investments. I mean, let’s look. I mean, is that fair? Well,
Richard Herrington 14:39
it is. But the reason there is money out there to do that. I mean, I think a lot of what we’re seeing is that the sort of hydrocarbon based economies of the world will be moving into that and the, you know, investment effectively into those sort of renewable resources for sorry, renewable energy is is being stimulated by those economies realizing that that’s the way it’s going to go. And I think I think it is, it’s there, there are quite a few startup companies that have approached me that are working and in trying to put those resources there. So I think what we’re going to be moving towards is probably a series of smaller, more sort of disaggregated producers who, effectively manufacturers are going to have to get more closely involved in that supply chain, and maybe develop offtake agreements directly with with producers. So I think that’s going to be an attractive way forward. And I don’t know if that’s the case, but we may be seeing some stimulus from manufacturing, putting direct investment into where this, the raw materials are coming from. Because in the sort of, in the open market days, people just sort of traded these on the on the world metal markets, but to secure the supply for your own factory, it may mean working directly with producers, and I know a number of organizations, some of the car manufacturers are doing doing just that, so that they they can effectively track their supply chain for from the mind gate to the battery factory. And then and then get secure their production.
Robert Bryce 16:21
Well, I’m glad you mentioned that, because that was what I was going to mention next. And I wanted to talk about cobalt, because I know that after some of the Expos essays were done, CNN did a very good one on on the cobalt trade in the Democratic Republic, Republic of Congo. And since then, as I recall, Daimler and a number of other auto manufacturers have been taken, you know, gone further up the supply chain to become more vertically integrated, right to make sure that they’re, you know, can certify that it’s not child labor. But But you mentioned when I think we exchanged emails some time ago, and you said that you identified cobalt as the as the, of all of these critical minerals, that that seemed to be at that moment, the most problematic is that still your position?
Richard Herrington 17:01
Well, it potentially is because, you know, there is a I mean, it’s a there is a big resource out there that is now being investigated by by some people, and that is the deep ocean floor, you’re probably aware of the, of these manganese nodules that occur in the Pacific Ocean. And they’re effectively there, there is an enormous resource of, of, particularly for cobalt, copper is nickel is manganese, the battery metals, if you like, that, there’s there’s huge resources of those on the deep ocean floor. But you know, they, and they look like little potatoes that that grown, they grow on on the ocean floor, but they are hot potatoes, and it’s a hot potato topic. Because, you know, a lot of people think that the deep ocean should be left alone. And in fact, that’s, you know, there’s effectively at the moment, there is a de facto moratorium on mining, because nobody has been given the go ahead to go and mine on the sea floor. A quite a lot of companies are investigating. And but you know, we don’t really understand enough about that environment, from the biodiversity point of view. So there are a lot of companies who are saying we don’t want to get our cobalt from the deep ocean floor. But you know, until we have all the data, we we were not in a position to say, is it better to get our cobalt from the deep ocean floor? Or should we get it from a mine in a rainforest? You know, it’s a big issue. Unfortunately, it’s come down to a choice, because if we want to get to net zero, we need those metals. And if we, we then have to say, Where are we going to get them from? Because as you say, there’s a scale here, we’re going to have to mine more. And it then comes down to a choice. And so it is a question of, you know, do we take it from a terrestrial mind setting? Or do we take it from, let’s say that choice for say cobalt would be deep ocean floor deposits and net never be mining on the deep ocean floor. But that’s another way that we looked at the data rationally. Society needs to make that decision as to whether we leave the deep ocean alone or we we put it in the mix of of choice, right?
Robert Bryce 19:29
But I mean, these you say, put it in the mix of choice. I mean, these, these aren’t easy ones, right? Because in the Congo, you have this history of conscripted Labor called slave labor, child labor, you know, or, you know, it’s it’s, by all accounts, it’s a fairly unsavory mining industry there, or going to the deep ocean. And my one of the guests on my podcast recently was Jesse possibile, who’s a great advocate for oceans and leaving oceans alone. And so there, I mean, there is going to be I guess this The question I thought, well, it occurred to me as I was preparing for our interview was the mining is difficult business. And it only seems like it’s getting more difficult if all over the world because the scrutiny of the mining industry is so much greater now. So I mean, do you? I don’t want I’m not asking you is this hopeless? But I mean, is there a natural limit on what the ability of the earth in terms of overall productivity, what those limits could be given the societal constraints as well as the physical constraints?
Richard Herrington 20:30
Well, you know, I would say, society, we’ve got to make that choice. So it’s a question of, we should be showing people, you know, you want these technologies, if you have these technologies, you need
Robert Bryce 20:44
these resources, there’s a price, there’s a price to pay, there’s no free lunch,
Richard Herrington 20:48
right? Now, the price might be too great. And there’s no doubt that in some situations, the price might be too great. And we’ll say it’s not worth paying that price, we’ll just do without that. That product. But you know, if the product is the thing, the very thing that will solve, you know, the climate issue by by weaning is off burning carbon, it’s, it’s a tough one to say, well, we’re not going to bring that technology in, it’s going to solve it. Now, there’s a lot of talk, we, there are other technologies out there other than lithium, cobalt batteries, but you know, they’re not tested, they’re not tried and tested. And we all know what happens when you bring in a technology that’s not tried and tested. probably remember the issues with Samsung mobile phones, when they they brought in a brand new battery, and the phones were burning up, right, similar problem with the, with the Ubering planes, you know, their lithium batteries were overheating. So this was a technology that probably wasn’t completely tested adequately. And I think industry is very reticent to put in a new technology that some proven, we now know that lithium ion batteries with lithium, cobalt, nickel, and so on. They work really well, they’re proven. And it’s a technology that works and we know will reduce our consumption of car and use of carbon. So we really, if we want to be strong about this, we’re going to have to bring technology in. So the choices, we either use fewer cars, maybe you tell the US and Britain, you can only have half of those cars that you used to have. So maybe that’s the decision that needs to be made. Or otherwise, you’re gonna have to say, well, you’re gonna have to get your metals from, from mines. But you know, this, there’s one thing that I raised in that paper of mine in nature of use materials is, you know, what we could, we could start to look closer to home for some of these metals. And you know, we’re doing that in Britain, we’re looking for lithium down in Cornwall, which is an old mining district. Lithium was never mind before. So the lithium was left in the ground, we could go back and get, you know, at least 30% of what UK needs for its batteries could come from mines in our own country. But that’s, that’s a question that we have to pose back to people saying, well, we can bring mining a bit closer to home a bit like when we talk with agriculture, you know, maybe if we do agriculture closer to home, we’re more careful about how it’s done. Maybe it’s the same for mining, we could, we can actually make mining better. And we could keep an eye on it better if it was in done in regulated jurisdictions. That means bringing it home and everybody, nobody really likes a mine in their backyard. But you know, if it’s, if it’s paying the bills, it’s solving the planetary issue. And you got, you know, no problem of the security of supply, perhaps that is a cost worth burning yourself with,
Robert Bryce 23:48
right, maybe maybe more, maybe more more, maybe more appetizing or an easier sale, a sale, then importing it from somewhere else from from G leg or from Bolivia or etc.
Richard Herrington 24:01
I see much as a personally speaking, I would be much more in favor of permitting a mine that was going to mine cobalt or lithium, then I would be a new coal mine. And you know, there’s been issues in the UK about permitting new hydrocarbon, new carbon, coal, basically. But you know, if it was bringing a technology that was going to solve the co2 problem, as a personal perspective, I would say that’s a price worth paying. Now,
Robert Bryce 24:31
we have that’s and that’s the choose, and that’s choosing metals over carbon, right, or as we, as you discussed earlier,
Richard Herrington 24:37
exactly, or all the other choices, let’s not have any electric vehicles, and then that’s an easy choice because then we don’t need the metals at all. Right? That’s society’s the only estimate? Sure.
Robert Bryce 24:51
So as a reminder, my guest is Richard Harrington. He’s the head of the earth sciences department at at the Natural History Museum in London. You can find out more about him at ACE A n h m.ac.uk. Or look up his paper that was in Nature Reviews materials published in May. And let me let me quote you from that paper that came out in May, he wrote that mining remains necessary to deliver validated technical solutions needed for the rapid decarbonisation demanded in the pledge about netzero you’re writing. And you said New Mind resources will be required in the short term to enable green technologies and infrastructure, there are sufficient geological resources to deliver the required metals. That’s the part that I thought was interesting. And I’ve talked with my father in law. He’s a PhD chemist and taught at University of Michigan for many years. He’s retired now, but he’s told me many times, yeah, they call them rare earths, but they’re not that rare. So is that true? Is that true? Because I mean, it’s an interesting and I wrote about it in my book power hungry, what, 1111 years ago about the lanthanides. And that these are the green, they call them the green minerals, right are the three metals, the green metals, but so neodymium praseodymium, all those ones in the in that row of the periodic table, the lanthanides, they’re not that rare. But But China controls strength has a stranglehold on their supply know
Richard Herrington 26:08
what they do, because they’re the resources that were prepared to mine at the moment. But you know, worldwide, we have, geologists have discovered new resources for all of those, those metals. So we, we do have a choice, we can go to other places for them. But currently, we, we’ve been happy to accept China having a stranglehold on those resources, because everybody’s played balls today. And we’ve been able to get the metals that we need, you know, as times get squeezed, like we’ve seen with the power prices, you know, and places like Russia, perhaps slowing down the gas supply to Europe, because they have an agenda, you do have a concern when you’ve only got one country supplying materials, that they are not saying they will, but they could have that ability to say, you know, what, we’ll, we’ll just squeeze the supply a little bit. Whereas if you had a choice, and we do if we if we, if we put more effort into looking at alternate supplies, there are some really interesting new resources of rare earths in places like you know, Madagascar, which is a problem in itself, because that’s, that’s got a it’s a biodiversity hotspot, it’s not the place perhaps you’d want all your mining to be done.
Robert Bryce 27:25
But also, also in Australia and Canada. No, there. I mean, I haven’t I read some reports about rare earths there. But you also have the problem. That was the the Molly CT mine in here in the US in California, they scaled up and they were looking at rare earths this was five or six years ago, they scaled up and then I don’t know what exactly happened, but whether the Chinese flooded the market, and then they went out of business. I mean, they business for a couple of years, and then they couldn’t make it in the market. And so it just seemed like a really fraught given the constrained trade in these metals. And that China when it comes to Well, I also in manganese, zinc, copper rare earths, they in almost all of those even in copper, they control either in terms of refined product output half or more, I think with the exception of copper. I mean, it’s the IEA report in May really laid this out in a in a way clearer than I’d never seen before. But really underscoring China’s role in or, or China’s control rather over the supply of nearly all these critical minerals. Is that it? Can you talk about that for a minute?
Richard Herrington 28:31
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s a fair observation. If we look at, you know, the criticality index, really for metals
Robert Bryce 28:39
at criticality index, I’ve not heard that term before. Is that a new one?
Richard Herrington 28:44
Yeah, well, Europe, and indeed the US have this. So the, you know, the, the, in 2011, the EU put out this index of the critical raw materials, and were 14 and it’s been expanded now. And the basis for those is their, you know, their essential nature for the new economy. And then the other one would be the security of its supply. And that would be down to monitor monopolistic effects like only coming from one country or where both the where the refining was was controlled, or it could even be a company monopoly. So for some commodities, one company might be controlling significant amounts of writing material, you know, the case of of some platinum group metals, for example. There’s mining there there Norilsk mined in Russia is a key producer. Things like palladium and you know, that’s a really important metal used in cat catalysts in a lot of things fuel cells included. So right are used in automobiles obviously as catalysts for catalytic Yeah, but they’re also used in fuel cells, which are at the front end of a hydrogen powered car. So these are important metals that are controlled. So absolutely, and I think that criticality index is like how important is a Cobalt is really important because we need it in the current batteries. But it’s also coming from only one country to coal box in the top right hand corner of criticality. Other metals might be really, really important like lithium, but currently, the supply chain isn’t too bad. So although they’re up there, they’re not at the top right hand corner.
Robert Bryce 30:38
And we met with people just curious. I’m sorry to interrupt, but where would people find the criticality index? This is new to me, I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’m passingly familiar with these issues? Where do where would I look that up?
Richard Herrington 30:50
Right, so the European Union published some reports on critical raw materials, and you can have a look on the website, I can’t give you the URL. But if you are a few kind of Google, eu critical raw materials, you’ll be driven to that report that would would put all of that into some.
Robert Bryce 31:11
And some cobalt, as you say, would be in this upper right hand corner, whereas iron would be in lower left hand or maybe not even on the list.
Richard Herrington 31:19
No, I’m not on the list, because we have got a lot of it. And it’s coming from such diverse supplies. That actually it’s it’s it’s it’s not critical, although, of course, shipping is becoming we’ve we’ve seen that with the you know, with the Suez Canal getting blocked, we had, we had some supply issues with shipping stuff around the planet. Sure, that isn’t included in that. But you know, if you were to put in the fact that if there was a squeeze on shipping, like we’ve just had a squeeze on petrol supplies, because we don’t, we don’t have enough tanker drivers to drive to the material to the so we’ve got the refineries producing petrol, but it’s not getting to the fuel pumps. And that’s another issue, which currently isn’t putting people some supply chains. But probably,
Robert Bryce 32:10
you know, as you as you say that one of the things that comes to mind, Richard is just the the the right word isn’t tenuous, but the how interrelated and close, you know, how close closely all of these issues are aligned. Right. And then we’ve been we’ve have we gone to sleep on the supply chain issue, I guess, would be the question that comes to mind, because we’ve depended on more just in time delivery, we’ve depended on you know, Oh, it’s okay to import it. But now we’re looking around the world and saying, whether it’s antibiotics or, or copper, I mean, these other things, we’ll wait a minute, we’re dependent on China for all this stuff. Why didn’t we know this is? So I mean, it’s really kind of what you’re talking about is actually the idea of reshoring. A lot of different industries that have we’ve kind of gone to sleep on, is that a fair way to think about this?
Richard Herrington 32:57
Well, I think I think I think it probably is, I think the COVID crisis has alerted us to the fact that we, yeah, just in time was a philosophy for not overstocking with things, but then when you get a crisis, I mean, we we had a particular issue in, you know, in Europe, UK, of personal protection for our health staff, I think probably that was felt over the world, because, I mean, you don’t want to keep boxes and boxes of PPE, but when you’ve got a crisis, you suddenly need them. And of course, the world needed them and it created a creative issue. So yes, I think we, we might well have taken our eye off the ball for that. And I think this is why with with a metal situation, we do need to make sure we we secure that supply chain. And to me, I’d hate going back to this idea of choice. If we have a choice of places we can get it from then when there’s a squeeze, you can’t get it from somewhere else that there’s a chance to get it, you know, from from from a different source. Of course, the problem with that is that, like we’ve talked about mountain past in the US, where they geared up to produce rare earth elements when the markets are really good. And someone floods the market and effectively in a way deliberately closes you down. And so that becomes an issue, but I think maybe
Robert Bryce 34:26
and was and was that And sorry to interrupt but was that with what happened with Molly going up in the mountain pass?
Richard Herrington 34:31
I don’t know. Because actually the is I think there’s there’s Chinese equity in mountain pass. So I don’t think I don’t think that was an issue particularly. But I do think it reflects the fact that rare earths were not super squeezed you know, there wasn’t a huge under supply. And I don’t think for lots of metals we do have quite a bit of slack in the supply chain in the near term. But you know As we got to 2040, if we’re delivering zero, we need to make sure that we keep that ability so that we don’t get an issue where we get a squeeze. Now, I think I think with rare earths, it was just oversupply, frankly.
Robert Bryce 35:15
Well, as you’re saying this Richard, one thing that comes to mind and again, my guest is Richard Harrington. He’s the head of the Earth Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum in London. His his, his name and work came to my attention in 2019, on the letter that he wrote, along with six or seven colleagues, to the committee on climate change, about critical materials and their role in importance in the netzero transition, you can find out more about him at nh m.ac.uk, or look up his new paper in Nature Reviews materials, which was published in May. But as you’re talking about this, Richard, what I hear you say, or what is inferred? Is that necessarily to do this kind of reshoring, you’re gonna need a stronger hand of government in mining, you’re going to the government is going to have to say no, these are critical materials we can’t allow, we can’t trust Russia or China or Congo, or we have to have a firmer and greater role in this production, delivery, refining, etc. Is that in my Am I hearing you correctly? Or is that the what is the in fact the case? Well,
Richard Herrington 36:17
I think governments need to wake up to the fact that we will. They are the ones making the commitment to the change know that like the net zero, they have to make sure that there is a there are mechanisms to be able to deliver the metals to the manufacturers to. So I think it’s quite a complex issue. And it would be it would be down to looking at places where maybe there is legislation that are barriers to diversifying the supply. So I would say that we don’t want things to be, you know, reducing the oversight the governance on particular projects. But what we may feel that we should do is, let’s, let’s get the true costs of these things evaluated. So that we’re, we’re kind of on a level level playing field. And we factor in things like the impacts, for example, social impacts, but we talked a little bit about the effect on a child labor might have on the market? Well, if we need to make sure that if there is a sniff of that kind of activity, that that we close that down, so there is a true price being paid. Because one of the issues we’ve got is that we should be increasing the amount of metals that we recycle. And there is a barrier or a risk of a barrier to recycling. If we make new mined commodities too cheap, we won’t develop better recycling strategy. So one of the things might be that some of these commodities are too cheap to mine. So we go in mind new stuff, where is actually we could get quite a lot of this from recycling. So it needs to be I think that’s where governments can help. And then in fact, in the EU, they there is legislation to make sure that when you build batteries for your cars, that in built in that is the is the mandate that you have to recycle those batteries at their end of life.
Robert Bryce 38:26
And isn’t that one of the key challenges? I know, in talking to people in the battery business, that lithium batteries are there, devilishly hard to recycle. I mean, they’re that lithium is not worth that much. Whereas lead acid batteries, something like what 95 98% of them are recycle. It’s one of the most recycled consumer products in the world.
Richard Herrington 38:44
What it is because lead is toxic, so therefore the zero tolerance of lead being thrown away. Now, you know, in order to force people to recycle with them, there may have to be a zero tolerance on getting on throwing things away. So I mean, that’s certainly in Europe. There are it’s legislated the amount of materials that have to be recycled. And I think that’s probably the same in a lot of parts of the US too. I know that that they have targets for recycling. And, and it’s happened for lead acid batteries a because you’re right, the the metals are higher value than lithium, but also because ladies toxic, there’s a huge penalty for allowing that to get into the waste.
Robert Bryce 39:28
So it’s more than one regulation more than one issue at hand here that determines the recyclability or the recycled recycling consistency or
Richard Herrington 39:39
lithium. You’re correct. Lithium is a lot cheaper to get as a new raw material than it is from a recycled battery. And that’s one of the issues that we have is that that could well be inhibiting recycling is because the quality of the recycled material might not be as good as a newly mined material. Sure. So before we that’s, to me, that’s the biggest place where there could be an intervention on legislation to make sure that, that we don’t put waste batteries, for example to landfill. Sure, that would be a crime.
Robert Bryce 40:15
So let me let me switch. We talked a lot about EVs and their role here. But in your in your letter from June of 2019, you also talk about solar and wind, and you talked about wind turbines, and the amounts of neodymium and dysprosium in them, again, back to the rare earth elements issue. And so it’s in the turbans, we’re talking about magnets, right neodymium iron boron magnets, that’s the that’s the key technology, both in in the turbans and in, in, in electric motors, right for electric vehicles. It tell me why, what is it about neodymium? What is that? Because that is it’s one of the rare earths that I hear about the most and I’m most familiar with why why is that such a critical element?
Richard Herrington 40:58
Well, it has these amazing properties, when you incorporate it into a magnet, just the sort of power to rate weight ratio is is enormous. Enormously good. I mean, that’s the key reason. And they can be they can be crafted, you know, you can produce these, these sort of ceramic magnets that they’re easy to machine and put together so technologically there, they’ve got a better power to weight ratio. So for car, of course, that’s a big driver. I mean, there are other technologies out there that that you can use cobalt magnets that are nearly as effective. And therefore you can cut out the need for rarer. So there are some tricks to get around the problem. But in broad terms, the best the best quality magnets for wind turbines and for in some applications are encompass this, they have this neodymium and dysprosium component to them.
Robert Bryce 42:07
Oh, okay. So it’s neodymium and Dysprosium. But it’s but they’re generally known as neodymium iron boron, right? Isn’t that the that’s
Richard Herrington 42:14
the key, the key part of it, but there’s a bit of dysprosium in some of them as well. It’s a bit of a cocktail.
Robert Bryce 42:19
I gotcha. So speaking of cocktails, let me talk about solar here. That’s not a very good transition, but I’ll make I’ll make the transition anyway. You also mentioned poly silicon when you talk about solar. And this has been another supply chain issue that has really come up just in the last few months with the issue of slave labor in Xinjiang in China, with the poly silicon production there. So it seems like we’re, you know, we’re talking about mining but inextricably linked to the social issues around slave labor, let’s call it what it is then the repression of the Uighur minority in China. I mean, it just, I guess when I look at these issues, I think man on on nearly every front, when we talk about green, so called green technologies, you’re facing both hardrock mining questions and social questions about what how much slave labor, is it okay for us to have in our solar panels? I mean, this is putting it very bluntly here. But that’s ultimately what we’re talking about 45% of the world’s poly silicon coming from Jin Jang, I mean, these are real, real challenges, aren’t they? How do how do we solve that silicon issue or poly silicon refining issue?
Richard Herrington 43:27
Well, you know, we can if we are to believe that the the these records there is there is a problem in that silicon supply, when it’s a manufacturing issue, and that is there are the solar panel, technologies are moving on a pace, there’s a new, there’s a whole new set based around a structural it’s called a perovskite structure, which is a different approach to it. So I think, because Solas been with us for such a long time. I I believe that we will be moving to other technologies in that area where the poly silicon thing spills over to microchips because we’ve had issues and we’ve supplied microchips and I’m waiting for I’m waiting for delivery and electric car which is held up because we don’t have enough microchips and so you
Robert Bryce 44:21
you you have an electric car on order. I do what is it what are you buying a Tesla what’s the what’s the story? Oh, when I
Richard Herrington 44:28
thought you’d be product plated placing but I’m actually buying a Volkswagen because it you know, it’s the right choice for what what I what we particularly want as a as a family. But yes, so there is a bit of a supply issue at the moment because of of chips for those vehicles. So So
Robert Bryce 44:49
are you you’re part of the you’re part of the problem or part of the solution here. I guess you’re one of the peoples contributing to the demand here.
Richard Herrington 44:57
Yes, I am indeed but I’m I’m hoping and I, you know, I’ve, I’ve done the lifecycle analysis on buying an electric car like the one I’m buying. And, you know, certainly the credit, that there is a carbon credit for doing that getting rid of the internal combustion engine car, which we’ve just sold, getting this electric vehicle over that its lifecycle will be an improvement. But it does expose, you’re quite right, that there are some supply chain issues for some of these other products, we’ve just arrived, we’ve just got to get better at monitoring those. And I think more consumers know about that, then they can make the choice and say, I’m not going to, I’m not prepared to have a solar panel from a company that would be doing things in this way. And that’s one of the benefits of the sort of open communications we’ve got. And we should be, we should be calling out companies that are sourcing things from places that we in using methodologies that we think are unsavory. And the thing that we that, that my group, we’re beginning to sort of work well, we’ve been working on the museum for quite a while is, is making sure that the mining operations also don’t have don’t have a negative impact on biodiversity, for example. So that’s another aspect really, that we, what we don’t want is this new mining, boom, which effectively there is for these metals, we don’t want that mining boom to lead to another issue for the planet. So if we solve the, you know, the co2 problem of the planet, but by doing that, we create huge tracts of, of biodiversity devastation, and we’ve not really moved on, we’ve just traded one problem for another. And the social issues are another two, Robert, I mean, that’s what you’re talking about the shinjang issue. You know, if truly they are being done in unsavory ways, we, we should be turning our backs on those supply lines.
Robert Bryce 47:01
So let me ask you a couple of specific questions in here about these critical metal minerals that we’re we’ve been talking about? Which ones are the hardest to refine? Or which ones create the most difficulty in terms of the refining process itself? Right? Because getting getting the ore out of the ground is just part of it. Right? So once you get it out of the ground, which ones are the hardest? Or have have the most environmental challenges when in refining? Is that the rare earths or something else?
Richard Herrington 47:26
Yeah, well, actually rare, ASIC are problematic because they, there are a whole bunch of them. As you know, the lanthanides is quite a long series of
Robert Bryce 47:36
between the light and they were dirty, they called the light ones are heavy,
Richard Herrington 47:39
right. And there’s only slight differences between them. So you know, you know, trying to get those recovered individually is quite tricky, because their chemical properties are quite similar. They’ve just got a slight difference in their atomic weights. So you use a combination of methodologies that rely on very subtle differences in in geochemistry to extract those. So those, those are often particular problems and service, they’re quite energy intensive. So if you can reuse rare earth once you’ve separated them, that’s absolutely terrific. And because going back to zero is tricky. But by the same token, it’s if you’ve got mixed waste, rare earth magnets, and they’re different compositions, it’s often as difficult to get those back as it is to go back to the raw materials.
Robert Bryce 48:37
So it’s not just about the refining, as you say, the separation, it’s also about the injury. But it’s also the energy intensity of that process, which you also mentioned in your letter and also in your, in your, in your paper in Nature Reviews materials. So which, so you know, like a lot of people I have a, you know, a cell phone. Yep. What are the which consumer goods? Are you talked about? In your letter about the the resource? What do you call them? EVs are resource hungry? What was that? Yes. Yes, electric vehicles are resource hungry? Are what consumer product is the most? is the most critical mineral intensive, what is it our cell phones is their electric vehicle? Is there one that you can say is this is the most I’ve heard about the Toyota Prius being one of the most rare earth element intensive consumer products? is can you define that? Or is that is that fair?
Richard Herrington 49:32
I think we’re I think we’re entering the realm where electric vehicles are going to be a big, big issue because this this the volume of them, basically, Robert II, you know, the sheer weight of them, the sheer weight. I mean, mobile phones, yeah, you know, a million mobile phones has got, I forget what it is in the way it’s about 35 kilograms of copper in a million. So it’s essentially 30 tons of copper. So it’s not huge. When you think for copper AR It’s it’s a huge amount. So the mobile phones we’re using a lot of, but there’s only tiny, tiny amounts of those metals in each of those phones. But you know, in a in a electric vehicle, it’s the volume of those metals, which is, is quite high. So I would say that they’re challenging, then also the generation of electricity for our, that’s an that the next one. So they, there’s a metal hungry, transition from going from carbon, burning carbon fossil fuels to using effectively minerals. So solar
Robert Bryce 50:37
and wind and the steel intensity copper, rare earth, I mean, you mentioned that you haven’t,
Richard Herrington 50:42
we haven’t talked about nuclear energy that, you know, that’s something in the mix that it’s also is, is mineral, well, it’s quite mineral hungry, but it’s, it’s not quite as mineral hungry as some of the other technologies. So it’s more of a traditional use of metals, obviously, we’re going to use uranium and but it’s, it’s like a, it’s got a set of and a lot of stainless steel. But it’s such an intensive thing, it’s more like replacing a coal fired power station, you can just plug in a, you know, a nuclear power station into the, into the infrastructure that right when away from a coal fired power station. Whereas with a wind farm, obviously, you’ve got to interconnect every every turbine blade, you know, the solar same.
Robert Bryce 51:31
And so you need pipes, you need pylons, you need transmission lines that are so is that fair, because it’s a line that I’ve used many times, but it’s that the lower the power density, the higher the resource intensity, you’re going to have to counteract that lower power, density, and wind and solar with steel, copper, concrete, all these other things, where, as you mentioned, nuclear, which is all the studies, I’ve seen, everything I’ve written, has the lowest resource intensity, because of the incredible power density of fission, is that fair?
Richard Herrington 51:57
That is fair to say? Absolutely. And so, you know, we, we need to accept the issue if we’re going to take nuclear, because you’re right, nuclear offers a great opportunity. And I know that we’re waiting for fusion, because if nuclear fusion gets off the ground, that would be a kind of a plugin to the old grid system, which would be wonderful. But that seems to be at least 10 years off, or at least but
Robert Bryce 52:22
and it was 10 years. 10 years off when I was a child, too. So
Richard Herrington 52:25
that’s the problem is it’s a camera keeps going down the track. But um, I think the, you know, nuclear fuel efficient is still it’s still a viable technology, if society is willing to, to live with the, you know, the waste issue, you know, in servitude, evictions in Britain, for example. It’s it’s part of our it’s part of our answer, because, you know, we’re looking for some of the power problems, you know, in the, in the cold winter, when the turbines aren’t turning, because there’s no wind, the sun isn’t shining. And we’re going to need something to give us a sort of baseload of power, which we used to, obviously,
Robert Bryce 53:09
and that might be sizewell. See if you can ever make up your mind on it, I guess is the Yes. Well, so let me just back up. And then I, we’ve been talking for about an hour and my guest, again, is Richard Harrington. He’s the head of the Earth Science Department at Natural History Museum in London. You can find him at nh m.ac.uk. Let me ask you a question that’s not related to necessarily the issues we’ve been talking about. So what’s the mood in Britain now? I mean, this, you know, I’ve read a lot of stories you’ve seen, you know, a lot of industrial facilities, shut down fertilizer plants shut down, you’ve had the petrol shortages, you’re looking at potentially catastrophic winter, if everything that I read is correct about the natural gas shortages. What’s the mood there?
Richard Herrington 53:49
I guess we’re kind of getting a grip of a COVID crisis, to be honest, that we were coming out of so there’s still you know, there’s I think there’s a bit of there’s optimism because that seems to be we’re finding a way out of that and we’re so there’s I think on that one side there is a risk some pessimism over the energy Well, you know what I? To me it’s an opportunity so another thing I’ve got a gas boiler at home that is is failing at the moment and so I’m investigating putting air source heat pump in that would replace it so you know what, it could be a stimulus for change there are people there are people worried about it, because the energy price for the average person is likely to go up this winter.
Robert Bryce 54:39
It’s gonna be what double triple quadruple something like that. I mean, some of these are numbers are just staggering.
Richard Herrington 54:45
You don’t guess but for the domestic supply, we have a cat you know, there’s a government cap on the energy cost to, to the the so what the effect is that we’re having energy companies going out of business energy supply companies going out of business because they can’t increase The cost of delivery to two people. So there could be an issue with that. And I think that’s where the government are considering how they’re going to ride that. Because if if energy prices do really skyrocket, I’m pretty sure that will have to be an intervention,
Robert Bryce 55:23
the government, the government will have to step in even further, because I mean, you’ve had what, what, what, what some 20 or 30, different electricity supply companies have already failed or bowed out of the market? I mean, it’s a it’s very similar, in fact, what’s happened in Britain to what happened here in Texas in February, but that’s a different discussion.
Richard Herrington 55:42
Yeah, go ahead out of that is because we got this process that protects the consumer, and then companies can’t supply that energy at the contract price. So they have to fold you know, so they’re committed to a contract price, which they can’t afford.
Robert Bryce 55:57
Sure. So last, just two more questions, if you don’t mind. So these are questions that I asked all of my guests. So, I mean, you’re obviously involved in a lot of issues around geology, mining, mineralogy, what are you reading what’s on your nightstand at home when you either well didn’t have to be on your nightstand on your desk? What books are on your hand for you?
Richard Herrington 56:17
Oh, well, I’m, I’m, I’m actually reading the Coleman Cormoran Strike novels by Robert Galbraith. I quite like sort of crime stories. So
Robert Bryce 56:29
give me the title again. What is the series? I’m sorry,
Richard Herrington 56:31
it’s Cormoran Strike. So. So it’s the office, Robert Galbraith. But actually, it’s JK Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter series. Oh, really?
Robert Bryce 56:41
Oh, that’s her name gnomes. under a pseudonym.
Richard Herrington 56:45
So I find those particularly compelling at the moment. So that, that kind of gets me out of out of that issue. I’ve also been reading what I just, again, read another book on looking at Cradle to Cradle concept of Cradle to Cradle manufacture. So that’s, that’s less light hearted, but it’s looking at when you build a product, make sure that you know what it’s going to be used for when it comes to the end of its life, ie building a proper re circular economy. So I’m really interested in in reading about that. But so they’re the they’re the kind of two, the two parallel things. I’m reading it the right way,
Robert Bryce 57:25
right crime novels and, and manufacturing, that’s covers that covers the gamut.
Richard Herrington 57:31
I’m interested, because I think, you know, I’ve always worked at the sort of sharp end of mining and getting the new raw materials. And there’s always been a disconnect between that and the manufacturers, I think there has to be much more top to bottom integration of, we used to have it where a minor, you know, a manufacturer would would get the raw material in the other end. And I think we’ve got to go back to that, to ensure that we have secure supply chains. And I think then, we also know where our materials are coming from. We’ve had that revolution in agriculture, so that when a consumer buys something, they fully understand the implications of the product they buy. And I think
Robert Bryce 58:12
so more back to that that vertical integration that Henry Ford, Ford had, where he owned the rubber on the road, the rubber plantations, he owned the smelters, he owned them, you know, the whole system. So last question, if you don’t mind. So what gives you hope?
Richard Herrington 58:26
What gives me well, what gives me hope for the colleagues I work with, but we are going to solve these issues. I I’ve got a pretty young research group of PhDs and postdocs who are working on technologies and but also on trying to solve these supply issues. I’m particularly excited got a new post doc who’s joining to where we are using microbiology to break up rocks and minerals, not using energy. And so the thing that gives me hope is there’s ingenuity this out there of young people who are up for the challenge that we we’ve got here, you know, it’s a challenge we had before probably at the end of the Stone Age, when we went into the Iron Age people were going, are we gonna have enough iron to replace all the Flint, and I think we’re at one of those crisis points. But the thing that gives me hope is, I’m working with a lot of young people with great ideas that will help solve those problems.
Robert Bryce 59:31
Well, that’s a good place to stop then. So Richard Harrington, many thanks for being on the power hungry podcast.
Richard Herrington 59:37
Thank you very much. Well, that I’ve really enjoyed this afternoon.
Robert Bryce 59:40
Thank you. And thanks to all you in podcast land. Tune in for the next episode of the power hungry podcast until then, see ya.