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Raw materials for a low carbon future

Hot metal being poured. © Getty images.

Nissan Leaf battery pack, BGS©NERC

Metals are fundamental to human existence. They are ubiquitous in the manufactured goods and supporting infrastructure we use and rely on every day. Metals perform a myriad of functions, including enabling the technologies needed to decarbonise the global economy such as low carbon energy generation and zero emission transport. However, humans use metals in vast quantities and their extraction and processing have profound environmental consequences, particularly in the emission of greenhouse gases. The Metals and Decarbonisation Science Briefing Paper summarises the current paradigm for global metal supply and demand, and sets out some of the barriers and opportunities that this presents to the transition to a more sustainable, low carbon economy.

Air pollution, climate change and energy security are the key drivers of the transformation currently underway towards a low carbon future. Several countries have developed plans for the decarbonisation of the power grid and the development of low emission vehicles. For example, the UK Government has committed to abolish the sale of new conventional cars and vans by 2040, and for every car and van on the road to be a zero emission vehicle by 2050.

Batteries and fuel cells are enabling technologies for low emission vehicles and their adoption is forecast to grow exponentially in the coming years. Even though dependency on fossil fuels will be reduced, raw materials, in particular metals, will be needed in greater amounts for the manufacture of battery packs, fuel cells, electric vehicles and hydrogen-powered vehicles. Cobalt, lithium, graphite, nickel, manganese, platinum group metals, copper, rare earth elements and many more will be required to enable this transition. Many of these materials are considered critical and issues with supply vulnerability and disruption may arise if actions to monitor the physical economy and mitigate potential impacts are not taken on time.

The low emissions vehicle transition is ambitious and requires a major shift in raw materials use. The Briefing note on raw materials for batteries in electric vehicles presents some of the key issues associated with the demand and supply of key commodities, such as cobalt, lithium and nickel, as well as a discussion of potential mitigation actions. Detailed commodity information can be found in the BGS Mineral profiles and in the BGS Commodity Review on Cobalt. Security of supply of raw materials is a topic of ongoing research within BGS and additional information can be found on critical raw materials in the 'Critical metals for low carbon technologies: can future supply be ensured?' briefing note. The latest World Mineral Production statistics are found in the BGS Commodities & Statistics webpage.

Lithium resources, and their potential to support battery supply chains, in Africa

Download the Lithium resources, and their potential to support battery supply chains, in Africa

The continent of Africa has significant natural lithium resources, which may provide an opportunity for many African countries to contribute to meeting increased demand whilst also supporting economic growth. Our 2021 report reviews known resources of lithium, and engagement in the battery supply chain, across key African countries. Many African countries have lithium resources and the potential for lithium mines. However, there is much less engagement in critical stages further along the supply chain. There is clear potential for Africa’s lithium resources to make an important contribution to regional economies, but this needs to be placed in the context of wider supply chains and environmental, social and governance issues. Download the Lithium resources, and their potential to support battery supply chains, in Africa report

Global critical metal deposit maps

Global lithium (Li) mines, deposits and occurrences

Download the Global lithium (Li) mines, deposits and occurrences map

Globally, lithium is extracted from two key sources: brines and minerals. Currently lithium-bearing minerals, such as spodumene and petalite, are chiefly extracted from pegmatites in Australia, Zimbabwe and Brazil; however, future sources of lithium are likely to include hectorite and jadarite that are found in some sedimentary basins. Extraction of lithium from brines predominantly occurs from continental brine deposits, such as those found in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Although, extraction from oilfield and geothermal brines has been demonstrated and may become an important source of lithium in the future.

Download the Global lithium (Li) mines, deposits and occurrences map

Global rare earth element (REE) mines, deposits and occurrences

Download the Global rare earth element (REE) mines, deposits and occurrences map

The rare earth elements (REE) are mined from hard-rock sources and from sources formed by weathering at the Earth’s surface. The main hard-rock sources are carbonatite and alkaline igneous rocks, in which REE are found in a wide range of minerals, although currently they are only extracted from monazite, xenotime, fluorcarbonates, and loparite. Much research is being undertaken to expand the range of minerals from which we will be able to extract REE in the future. The main weathered sources of REE are ion adsorption clays, weathered carbonatite, and mineral sands. China is the main global producer of REE ores and concentrates, but a number of other REE mines have opened in recent years.

Download the Global rare earth element (REE) mines, deposits and occurrences map

Related publications

Raw materials for decarbonisation profiles

Download The potential for cobalt in the UK

Raw materials for decarbonisation FAQs