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Europe’s Lithium Challenge on the Road to Electrification

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The following content is sponsored by Rock Tech Lithium.

The Road to Electrification

The world is moving towards a cleaner future, one where we will likely see electric vehicles (EVs) dominating our highways and city roads.

In turn, increasing EV adoption will inevitably increase the demand for battery metals, the critical ingredients of lithium-ion batteries. With governments tightening emission standards and some planning to ban gas-powered vehicles completely, securing the supply of these minerals is becoming increasingly important.

Europe—the largest market for EVs—is well on the way to electrification, but it faces one big speedbump: lithium supply. The above infographic from Rock Tech Lithium outlines the lithium supply chain and Europe’s lithium challenge on the road to large-scale EV adoption.

The Lithium Supply Chain

Before lithium makes it into EVs, miners extract it from the ground and downstream companies convert it from its raw form into lithium chemicals for batteries.

According to the USGS, there are 86 million tonnes of lithium resources worldwide, but the majority of production comes from a few regions.

Country2020E Production (tonnes)Resources (tonnes)
Australia40,0006,400,000
Chile18,0009,600,000
China14,0005,100,000
Argentina6,20019,300,000
Brazil1,900470,000

Australia, Chile, and China collectively accounted for 88% of lithium supply in 2020. Australia, the largest producer, produces the majority of its lithium from hard-rock spodumene mines. In the Western Hemisphere, Chile is known for lithium evaporation ponds in the Salar de Atacama, its largest salt flat.

Refining lithium into battery-grade chemicals is just as important as resources in the ground. China, the third-largest lithium producer, also dominates the production of downstream chemicals—lithium carbonates and hydroxides—with over 80% of global refining capacity.

Due to concentrated mine production and China’s dominance in the supply chain, the rest of the world is dependent on imports from a few nations. Import reliance and the resulting lack of supply chain security are a cause for concern, especially as lithium demand rises.

Europe’s Rising Need for Lithium

The European Union (EU) aims to have at least 30 million electric cars on its roads by 2030. In addition, European countries have rolled out various incentives for EV adoption—from subsidies for manufacturers to tax benefits for buyers. Consequently, Europe is becoming a hub for EV and battery manufacturers.

In fact, the EU is expected to account for 18% of global battery manufacturing capacity by 2029, up from 6% in 2019. And this doesn’t account for the six new plants that Volkswagen is planning to build by 2030.

With a growing demand for EVs comes a rising need for lithium. According to the European Commission, relative to current supply levels, the EU will need 18 times more lithium by 2030 and 60 times more by 2050.

Without any large-scale domestic production, the EU is heavily reliant on lithium imports. This puts its supply security and sustainability at risk for the long term.

Tackling Europe’s Lithium Supply Challenge

In a bid to develop a domestic lithium-ion battery supply chain, the EU has taken up initiatives to support every stage, from sourcing raw materials to producing finished battery packs.

  • The European Raw Materials Alliance (ERMA)
    The ERMA aims to develop a resilient supply chain for critical minerals by strengthening domestic raw material production.
  • Financial support
    The EU is offering EUR6.1 billion (roughly $7.5 billion) in subsidies to develop the battery production supply chain.
  • The European Battery Alliance
    A network of more than 600 participants from the battery value chain, aiming to build a strong and competitive European battery industry.

EVs are a key part of Europe’s push towards decarbonization, and mainstream EV adoption requires a sustainable supply of critical minerals like lithium.

Alongside these initiatives, developing new sources of both raw materials and refined products will play a key role in solving Europe’s lithium supply challenge.

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How Is Aluminum Made?

Aluminum is one of the world’s most widely used metals, but producing it is a complex process. Here’s a look at where it comes from.

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how is aluminum made?

How is Aluminum Made?

Aluminum is one of our most widely-used metals, found in everything from beer cans to airplane parts.

However, the lightweight metal doesn’t occur naturally, and producing it is a complex process.

The above infographics use data from the USGS, Aluminium Leader, and other sources to break down the three stages of aluminum production.

The Three Stages of Aluminum Production

Each year, the world produces around 390 million tonnes of bauxite rock, and 85% of it is used to make aluminum.

Bauxites are rocks composed of aluminum oxides along with other minerals and are the world’s primary source of aluminum. After mining, bauxite is refined into alumina, which is then converted into aluminum.

Therefore, aluminum typically goes from ore to metal in three stages.

Stage 1: Mining Bauxite

Bauxite is typically extracted from the ground in open-pit mines, with just three countries—Australia, China, and Guinea—accounting for 72% of global mine production.

Country2021 Mine Production of Bauxite (tonnes)% of Total
Australia 🇦🇺110,000,00028.2%
China 🇨🇳86,000,00022.1%
Guinea 🇬🇳85,000,00021.8%
Brazil 🇧🇷32,000,0008.2%
India 🇮🇳22,000,0005.6%
Indonesia 🇮🇩18,000,0004.6%
Russia 🇷🇺6,200,0001.6%
Jamaica 🇯🇲5,800,0001.5%
Kazakhstan 🇰🇿5,200,0001.3%
Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦4,300,0001.1%
Rest of the World 🌍15,500,0004.0%
Total390,000,000100.0%

Australia is by far the largest bauxite producer, and it’s also home to the Weipa Mine, the biggest bauxite mining operation globally.

Guinea, the third-largest producer, is endowed with more than seven billion tonnes of bauxite reserves, more than any other country. Additionally, Guinea is the top exporter of bauxite globally, with 76% of its bauxite exports going to China.

After bauxite is out of the ground, it is sent to refineries across the globe to make alumina, marking the second stage of the production process.

Stage 2: Alumina Production

In the 1890s, Austrian chemist Carl Josef Bayer invented a revolutionary process for extracting alumina from bauxite. Today—over 100 years later—some 90% of alumina refineries still use the Bayer process to refine bauxite.

Here are the four key steps in the Bayer process:

  1. Digestion:
    Bauxite is mixed with sodium hydroxide and heated under pressure. At this stage, the sodium hydroxide selectively dissolves aluminum oxide from the bauxite, leaving behind other minerals as impurities.
  2. Filtration:
    Impurities are separated and filtered from the solution, forming a residue known as red mud. After discarding the mud, aluminum oxide is converted into sodium aluminate.
  3. Precipitation:
    The sodium aluminate solution is cooled and precipitated into a solid, crystallized form of aluminum hydroxide.
  4. Calcination:
    The aluminum hydroxide crystals are washed and heated in calciners to form pure aluminum oxide—a sandy white material known as alumina.

The impurities or red mud left behind in the alumina production process is a major environmental concern. In fact, for every tonne of alumina, refineries produce 1.2 tonnes of red mud, and there are over three billion tonnes of it stored in the world today.

China, the second-largest producer and largest importer of bauxite, supplies more than half of the world’s alumina.

Country2021 alumina production (tonnes)% of total
China 🇨🇳74,000,00053%
Australia 🇦🇺21,000,00015%
Brazil 🇧🇷11,000,0008%
India 🇮🇳6,800,0005%
Russia 🇷🇺3,100,0002%
Germany 🇩🇪1,900,0001%
Ireland 🇮🇪1,900,0001%
Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦1,800,0001%
Ukraine 🇺🇦1,700,0001%
Spain 🇪🇸1,600,0001%
Rest of the World 🌍15,100,00011%
Total139,900,000100%

Several major producers of bauxite, including Australia, Brazil, and India, are among the largest alumina producers, although none come close to China.

Alumina has applications in multiple industries, including plastics, cosmetics, and chemical production. But of course, the majority of it is shipped to smelters to make aluminum.

Stage 3: Aluminum Production

Alumina is converted into aluminum through electrolytic reduction. Besides alumina itself, another mineral called cryolite is key to the process, along with loads of electricity. Here’s a simplified overview of how aluminum smelting works:

  1. In aluminum smelter facilities, hundreds of electrolytic reduction cells are filled up with molten cryolite.
  2. Alumina (composed of two aluminum atoms and three oxygen atoms) is then dumped into these cells, and a strong electric current breaks the chemical bond between aluminum and oxygen atoms.
  3. The electrolysis results in pure liquid aluminum settling at the bottom of the cell, which is then purified and cast into its various shapes and sizes.

China dominates global aluminum production and is also the largest consumer. Its neighbor India is the second-largest producer, making only a tenth of China’s output.

Country2021 Aluminum Smelter Production (tonnes)% of total
China 🇨🇳39,000,00059%
India 🇮🇳3,900,0006%
Russia 🇷🇺3,700,0006%
Canada 🇨🇦3,100,0005%
United Arab Emirates 🇦🇪2,600,0004%
Australia 🇦🇺1,600,0002%
Bahrain 🇧🇭1,500,0002%
Iceland 🇮🇸880,0001%
U.S. 🇺🇸880,0001%
Rest of the World 🌍9,400,00014%
Total66,560,000100%

As is the case for alumina production, some of the countries that produce bauxite and alumina also produce aluminum, such as India, Australia, and Russia.

Roughly a quarter of annually produced aluminum is used by the construction industry. Another 23% goes into vehicle frames, wires, wheels, and other parts of the transportation industry. Aluminum foil, cans, and packaging also make up another major end-use with a 17% consumption share.

Aluminum’s widespread applications have made it one of the most valuable metal markets. In 2021, the global aluminum market was valued at around $245.7 billion, and as consumption grows, it’s projected to nearly double in size to $498.5 billion by 2030.

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Technology Metals

How Strong Are Rare Earth Magnets?

Rare earth magnets are the most powerful magnets in the world. How does their strength compare with other common magnets?

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rare earth magnets

How Strong Are Rare Earth Magnets?

Magnets are an integral part of many technologies and appliances in the 21st century.

From tiny fridge magnets that hold to-do lists to powerful ones that create magnetic fields for electricity generation from wind turbines, there are many different types of magnets.

The world’s strongest magnets, also known as rare earth magnets, are made by alloying certain rare earth elements with other materials.

But just how strong are rare earth magnets, and what makes them so powerful?

Measuring Magnet Strength

The above infographic uses data from First4Magnets to compare the strength of magnets. But before looking at the strongest magnets, it’s essential to understand how to measure magnetic strength.

The maximum energy product, measured in mega-gauss-oersteds (MGOe), is one of the primary indicators of magnetic strength. It is a multiplication of two measurements: a magnet’s remanence and its coercivity.

  • Remanence:
    To become magnets, ferromagnetic substances need to enter the magnetic field of an existing magnet. Remanence, measured in Gauss, is the magnetism left in the magnet after removing the external magnetic field.
  • Coercivity:
    Coercivity is the energy required to bring a magnetic material’s magnetism down to zero. Measured in oersteds, it essentially captures the magnetic material’s resistance to demagnetization.

The Strength of Rare Earth Magnets

Each magnet has a grade, which typically denotes its strength. For example, a neodymium magnet of grade N42 has a strength of 42MGOe.

To put the power of two common rare earth magnet grades into perspective, here’s how their strength compares with common grades of other permanent magnets:

Magnet (Grade)CompositionMaximum Energy Product (MGOe)
Neodymium (N42)Neodymium, iron, boron42
Samarium Cobalt (SmCo 2:17)Samarium, cobalt28
Alnico (Alnico-5)Iron, aluminum, nickel, cobalt5.5
Ferrite (Ferrite-8)Ceramics, iron oxide3.5
Magnetic rubber (Grade Y)Strontium or barium, synthetic rubber, PVC0.8

Note: While the N42 neodymium magnet is used more commonly, the strongest available magnet is of grade N52.

Neodymium and samarium—two of the 17 rare earth elements—are ferromagnetic, meaning that they have inherent magnetic properties and can be magnetized. These metals are first mined, refined, and then combined with materials like iron, boron, and/or cobalt to make the strongest magnetic alloys.

Neodymium magnets are typically composed of one-third neodymium, along with iron and boron. Some of the neodymium in magnets can be replaced with praseodymium, another rare earth material. For this reason, neodymium magnets are also known as NdPr magnets.

Due to their strength, neodymium magnets have found their way into various technologies, from phones and laptops to motors in electric vehicles. In fact, according to Adamas Intelligence, 90% of all EV motors use NdPr magnets. Because these magnets also offer relatively high strength for a smaller size, they are also the predominant choice for wind turbines, reducing turbine weight significantly.

Samarium-cobalt magnets exhibit exceptional resistance to extreme temperatures. These magnets can operate from temperatures as low as -270℃ up to 350℃ and are also highly resistant to corrosion. Consequently, they have important applications in harsh marine environments and technologies with high operating temperatures.

The Demand for Neodymium Magnets

Global EV sales more than doubled last year, up from around 3 million cars in 2020 to 6.6 million in 2021. Similarly, renewable energy is expanding at a record pace, with capacity installations in 2022 set to break the record set the previous year.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the demand for rare earth magnets is expected to increase. Neodymium magnet consumption is forecasted to grow from more than 100,000 tonnes in 2020 to 300,000 tonnes by 2035, with EVs and wind turbines driving growth.

However, the supply chain of neodymium magnets remains a concern with China controlling the majority of rare earth extraction, refining, and downstream magnet production.

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