Electrifying society

Frequently asked questions

Researchers at the School of Chemical Engineering respond to frequently asked questions on electrification.

As the world becomes more electrified, can the growing demand be met by available mineral reserves?
The arteries of a carbon neutral society are made of copper. Demand for the metal and many others will grow sharply. A challenge that is likelier and which we will need to confront earlier than that of the absolute sufficiency of metals needed in the green transformation is that the production of metals may not keep pace with the growing demand. In addition, there may be geopolitical risks associated with availability: some of the minerals are produced and refined in a very few countries.

Can recycling metals become a substitute for mining?
The circular economy of metals will not be an alternative to mines for a very long time: demand for the most important metals is growing so much faster than the rate of return of the same materials into circulation, that mining activities must be increased in the world. Batteries of electric cars will not be coming back for recycling in any significant amounts for another decade. Even then the material recovered from them might not meet more than about 20 percent of demand.

Even if mining were to increase significantly from the present level, the growth would be unlikely to happen at a pace required for reducing climate change. Setting up a mine can easily take ten years from when a sufficiently viable deposit is identified. One big problem in Europe is that the ground has not been examined thoroughly enough.

Does electrification affect natural diversity?
Electrification affects the environment and the depletion of nature in many ways. The production of renewable electricity requires extensive areas of land. For example, it has been calculated in the United States that the wind and solar energy parks needed for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 would require 2 percent of the country's surface area. The impact on nature loss would largely depend on the areas where the production is established.

Mining operations have considerable environmental impact. Mining and refining require extensive land areas and environmentally hazardous chemicals, such as sulphuric acid. Mining and refining also consume large amounts of water. In addition, the desired metals often can be found in the same places as radioactive substances, such as uranium.

How realistic is it to replace materials in the future with wood-based or other renewable materials?
Cellulose-based battery materials have already been developed, for example. Replacing minerals with renewable materials is nevertheless challenging because supplies of biomaterials are also limited. Biologically based reducing agents - substances that release the metal from the minerals - are now being studied in the manufacture of metals. Research has indicated that so much wood would be needed in the manufacture of metals that the diversity of nature would be under threat.  

How is battery development moving forward? Does Finland have possibilities on a global scale?
Developing battery technology is now high on the list of priorities for many countries. Climate goals are pushing societies to electrify at a fast pace. Finland has a potential for success in this contest, as the availability and refining of raw materials such as nickel and cobalt are at a good level. In addition, research on battery materials and recycling is of high quality.

Although Asian countries are ahead in battery technology, Finland could eventually become a pioneer in sustainable production of both battery materials and batteries, and in recycling. The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment released a battery strategy aimed at strengthening Finnish competitiveness in the field of rechargeable batteries and to support growth in the battery cluster.

What is the battery cluster?
In this case the cluster refers to the value chain of the battery industry formed by companies and other organisations and their ability to operate together. The value chain comprises suppliers of raw materials – mines, as well as suppliers of chemicals, manufacturers of battery materials and battery cells, battery factories, and developers of battery control systems, and players in re-use and recycling.

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