Electrifying society

Global boom in mining is on the way

Demand for many minerals is already growing fast. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that demand for lithium, the basic raw material for electric cars, will increase more than 40-fold by 2040.

Electrification requires many kinds of minerals. For example, turning the kinetic energy of the blades of a wind power plant into electricity requires permanent magnets. These contain iron, boron, and rare earth metals, such as neodymium and terbium.

The electrification of societies also increases demand for ordinary metals such as carbon and aluminium. For example, the electricity produced by an offshore wind power plant moves along the bottom of the sea to land through a copper cable the thickness of a log, and each electric car requires four times more copper than a car powered by an internal combustion engine does.

Meanwhile, as Europe gets away from fossil energy, it will need more non-renewable raw materials from the crust of the earth and the seas: a worldwide mining boom is coming. For example, copper mining will have to be increased because 80 percent of all copper is still in use and consequently, and the needs of electrification cannot be sufficiently met by recycling it.

Mining activities always affect the state of the environment and natural diversity. Its negative social impact is also considerable: forced labour and child labour are still common in mining operations. Mining feeds so-called mineral conflicts, especially in Africa, and destroys the viability of other livelihoods, such as fishing and agriculture.

The electrification of societies through existing technologies, and through the continued increase of overall consumption of energy is simply beyond the carrying capacity of nature, and the timetable set by climate change. Geopolitics adds to the factor of difficulty posed by the challenge: especially in producing and refining rare earth metals, Europe is completely dependent on China.

Solving the challenges of electrification is therefore not just a scientific question: it requires extensive societal debate. The Aalto University School of Chemical Engineering produces information for this.

Aalto often works with private businesses, other universities, and research institutes to help turn the information into new products and practices. The research also serves decision-making in society.


Close cooperation with industry is our strength. We can model the life-cycle effects of refining minerals and recycling in future processes

Mari Lundström
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