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Energy Shift

The Raw Material Needs of Energy Technologies

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The Raw Materials in Energy Technologies

Behind every energy technology are the raw materials that power it, support it, or help build it.

From the lithium in batteries to the copper cabling in offshore wind farms, every energy technology harnesses the properties of one or the other mineral. And the world is shifting towards clean energy technologies, which are more mineral-intensive than their fossil-fuel counterparts.

The above infographic uses data from the World Bank’s Climate Action report and charts the 2050 demand for 15 minerals from energy technologies, as a percentage of 2020 production.

Material Demand from Energy Technologies

Energy sources make use of various minerals that offer different properties and functionalities.

For instance, geothermal power plants use steel alloys with large quantities of titanium to withstand high heat and pressure. Similarly, solar panels use silver for its high conductivity, and hydropower plants use steel alloys with chromium, which hardens steel and makes it corrosion-resistant.

The demand for these energy technologies and minerals will grow alongside our energy needs. Here are some of the minerals that are expected to see increasing demand from energy technologies through 2050, relative to current production levels:

Mineral2020 Production (thousand tonnes)2050 Annual Projected Demand (thousand tonnes)2050 Demand as a % of 2020 Production
Lithium82415506%
Cobalt140644460%
Graphite1,1004,590417%
Indium0.91.73192%
Vanadium86138161%
Nickel2,5002,26891%
Silver251560%
Lead4,40078118%
Molybdenum3003311%
Copper20,0001,3787%
Aluminum65,2005,5839%
Manganese18,5006944%
Chromium40,0003660.92%
Iron1,500,0007,5840.51%
Titanium8,2003.440.04%

Lithium, cobalt, and graphite—the key ingredients of EV batteries—will see the largest increases in demand, each requiring more than a 400% increase relative to 2020 production. These figures can look even more substantial once we bear in mind that this demand is only from energy technologies, and these minerals have other uses too.

Indium and vanadium may be among the lesser-known minerals in this list, however, they are important. Indium demand is expected to rise to 1,730 tonnes by 2050—largely because of demand from solar energy. Similarly, vanadium may also see a large spike in demand due to the growing need for energy storage technologies.

On the other end of the spectrum, iron and aluminum have the largest demand figures in absolute terms. However, miners already produce large quantities of these minerals, and their demand in 2050 represents less than 10% of current production levels.

The Supply and Demand Equation

Although some metals are available in abundance within the Earth’s crust, their demand and supply don’t always match up.

For example, falling copper ore grades in Chile are raising concerns over copper’s long-term supply and Citigroup projects a 521,000-tonne copper shortage for 2021. In addition, a large portion of lithium, cobalt, and graphite production occurs in a few regions, putting the battery supply chain at risk of disruptions.

While supply may be in uncertain territory, it’s extremely likely that demand will rise. As the world transitions to clean energy, a sustainable supply of these minerals could be key to meeting the raw material needs of energy technologies.

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Energy Shift

70 Years of Global Uranium Production by Country

Global uranium production has been affected by world events throughout history. Here’s how uranium production has evolved over 70 years.

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70 Years of Global Uranium Production by Country

Uranium was discovered just over 200 years ago in 1789, and today, it’s among the world’s most important energy minerals.

Throughout history, several events have left their imprints on global uranium production, from the invention of nuclear energy to the stockpiling of weapons during the Cold War.

The above infographic visualizes over 70 years of uranium production by country using data from the Nuclear Energy Agency.

The Pre-nuclear Power Era

The first commercial nuclear power plant came online in 1956. Before that, uranium production was mainly dedicated to satisfying military requirements.

In the 1940s, most of the world’s uranium came from the Shinkolobwe Mine in the Belgian Congo. During this time, Shinkolobwe and Canada’s Eldorado Mine also supplied uranium for the Manhattan Project and the world’s first atomic bomb.

However, the end of World War II marked the beginning of two events that changed the uranium industry—the Cold War and the advent of nuclear energy.

Peak Uranium

Between 1960 and 1980, global uranium production increased by 53% to reach an all-time high of 69,692 tonnes. Here’s a breakdown of the top uranium producers in 1980:

Country1980 Production (tonnes U)% of Total
U.S. 🇺🇸16,81124%
USSR15,70023%
Canada 🇨🇦 7,15010%
South Africa 🇿🇦 6,1469%
East Germany 🇩🇪 5,2458%
Niger 🇳🇪 4,1206%
Namibia 🇳🇦 4,0426%
France 🇫🇷 2,6344%
Czechoslovakia 🇨🇿2,4824%
Australia 🇦🇺 1,5612%
Other 🌎 3,8015%
Total69,692100%

Several factors drove this rise in production, including the heat of the Cold War and the rising demand for nuclear power. For example, the U.S. had 5,543 nuclear warheads in 1957. 10 years later, it had over 31,000, and the USSR eventually surpassed this with a peak stockpile of around 40,000 warheads by 1986.

Additionally, the increasing number of reactors worldwide also propelled uranium production to new highs. In 1960, 15 reactors were operating globally. By 1980, this number increased to 245. What’s more, after the Oil Crisis in 1973, nuclear power emerged as a viable alternative to fossil fuels, and the price of uranium tripled between 1973 and 1975. Although the increase in uranium production was less dramatic, high prices made mining more profitable.

However, several nuclear accidents in the world such as the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown in the U.S. in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1987 brought a stop to the rapid growth of nuclear power. Furthermore, following the end of the Cold War, military stockpiles of uranium were used as “secondary supply”, reducing the need for mine production to some extent. As a result, uranium production declined sharply after 1987.

The Current State of Uranium Mining

Uranium producers have changed considerably over time. Since the economic viability of uranium deposits often depends on the market price, many countries have dropped out due to lower uranium prices, while others have entered the mix.

Here are the top 10 uranium-producing countries based on 2019 production:

Country2019 Production (tonnes U)% of Total
Kazakhstan 🇰🇿 22,80842%
Canada 🇨🇦 6,94413%
Australia 🇦🇺 6,61312%
Namibia 🇳🇦 5,1039%
Uzbekistan 🇺🇿 3,5006%
Niger 🇳🇪 3,0536%
Russia 🇷🇺 2,9005%
China 🇨🇳 1,6003%
Ukraine 🇺🇦 7501%
India 🇮🇳 4001%
Other 🌎 5531%
Total54,224100%

Kazakhstan has been the world’s leading uranium producer since 2009. In 2019, Kazakhstan mined more uranium than Canada, Australia, and Namibia combined, making up 42% of global production. It’s also worth noting that Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Ukraine—four countries that were formerly part of the USSR—made it into the top 10 list.

Canada was the world’s second-largest producer of uranium despite production cuts at the country’s biggest uranium mines. Australia ranked third with just three uranium-producing mines including Olympic Dam, the world’s largest known uranium deposit.

Overall, the top 10 countries accounted for 99% of global uranium production, and the majority of this came from the top three. However, global production has been on a downward trend since 2016, with a slight bump in 2019.

The Future of Uranium Production: Up or Down?

The uranium market is at an inflection point, with tightening supply and rising demand.

As of 2020, mine production covered only 74% of world reactor requirements, and analysts expect the market deficit to continue through 2022. Although secondary sources have historically filled the gap between demand and supply, recent developments in the uranium market have driven prices to six-year highs, which could also affect uranium production.

In addition, the shift towards clean energy could provide a boost to uranium demand, especially because of the advantages of nuclear power. With countries like China embracing nuclear energy and others planning for complete phase-outs, nuclear’s evolving role in the global energy mix will likely shape the future of uranium production.

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Energy Shift

The Future of Uranium: A Story of Supply and Demand

The uranium market is at a tipping point. Here’s how the forces of uranium supply and demand could change the direction of the industry.

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The Future of Uranium: A Story of Supply and Demand

The uranium market is at a tipping point.

Since the Fukushima accident in 2011, uranium prices have been on a downtrend, forcing several miners to suspend or scale back operations. But nuclear’s growing role in the clean energy transition, in addition to a supply shortfall, could turn the tide for the uranium industry.

The above infographic from Standard Uranium outlines how uranium’s demand and supply fundamentals stack up, and how that balance could change the direction of the market in the future.

The Uranium Supply Chain

The supply of uranium primarily comes from mines around the world, in addition to secondary sources like commercial stockpiles and military stockpiles.

Although uranium is relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, not all uranium deposits are economically recoverable. While some countries have uranium resources that can be mined profitably when prices are low, others do not.

For example, Kazakhstan hosts roughly 1.2 billion lbs of identified recoverable uranium resources extractable at less than $18 per lb, more than any other country. On the contrary, Australia hosts a larger resource of uranium but with a higher cost of extraction. This varying availability of resources affects how much uranium these countries produce.

Country2019 production (lbs U)% of Total
Kazakhstan 🇰🇿50,282,97342.1%
Canada 🇨🇦15,308,88112.8%
Australia 🇦🇺14,579,15212.2%
Namibia 🇳🇦11,250,1769.4%
Uzbekistan 🇺🇿7,716,1706.5%
Niger 🇳🇪6,730,7055.6%
Russia 🇷🇺6,393,3985.3%
China 🇨🇳3,527,3923.0%
Ukraine 🇺🇦1,653,4651.4%
India 🇮🇳881,8480.7%
South Africa 🇿🇦762,7990.6%
United States 🇺🇸147,7100.1%
Rest of the World 🌎308,6470.3%
Total119,543,315100%

It’s not surprising that Kazakhstan is the largest producer of uranium given its vast wealth of low-cost resources. In 2019, Kazakhstan produced more uranium than the second, third, and fourth-largest producers combined.

Canada produced around one-third of Kazakhstan’s production despite the suspension of the McArthur River Mine, the world’s largest uranium mine, in 2018. Australia was the world’s third-largest producer with just two operating uranium mines.

However, production figures do not tell the entire story, and it’s important to look at how the market price of uranium impacts supply.

How Uranium Prices Affect Supply

Low uranium prices have had a twofold effect on uranium supply over the last decade.

Firstly, miners have cut back on production due to the weakness in prices, reducing the primary supply of uranium. Here are some production cutbacks from major uranium mining companies:

YearCompanyProduction Cutback
2016Cameco 🇨🇦Production at Rabbit Lake Mine suspended
2017Kazatomprom 🇰🇿Output reduced by 10%
2018Kazatomprom 🇰🇿Output reduced by 20%
2018Paladin Energy 🇦🇺 Production at Langer Heinrich Mine suspended
2018Cameco 🇨🇦Production at McArthur River Mine suspended
2019Kazatomprom 🇰🇿Output reduced by 20%

Table excludes suspensions induced by COVID-19.
Sources: Cameco, WISE Uranium Project, Paladin Energy

In addition, low prices have also blocked new supplies from entering the market. Around 46% of the world’s identified uranium resources, 8 million tonnes, have an extraction cost higher than $59 per lb. However, uranium prices have hovered close to $30 per lb since 2011, making these resources uneconomic.

As a result, the supply of uranium has been tightening, and in 2020, mine production of uranium covered only 74% of global reactor requirements.

Going Nuclear: The Future of Uranium

The world is moving towards a cleaner energy future, and nuclear power could play a key role in this transition.

Nuclear power is not only carbon-free, it’s also one of the most reliable and safe sources of energy. Countries around the world are beginning to recognize these advantages, including Japan, where all 55 reactors were previously taken offline following the Fukushima accident.

With more than 54 reactors under construction and 100 reactors planned worldwide, the demand for uranium is set to grow. Unlocking new and existing supplies is critical to meeting this rising demand, and new uranium discoveries will be increasingly valuable in balancing the market.

Standard Uranium is working to discover uranium with five projects in the Athabasca Basin, Saskatchewan, Canada, home of the world’s highest-grade uranium deposits.

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