Connect with us

Electrification

Visualized: The Silver Mining Journey From Ore to More

Published

on

The following content is sponsored by Silver X.

The Silver Mining Journey From Ore to More

Silver has been a monetary metal and used in jewelry for thousands of years, but today, silver is powering the green energy transition and new tech innovation. With the greatest electrical conductivity of all metals, silver is used in electrical contacts and circuit boards, along with solar panels, electric vehicles, and 5G devices.

Behind the large collection of silver-dependent products and technologies is an active mining industry that must supply the necessary metal. So how exactly is the silver mined and produced?

This graphic from our sponsor Silver X walks us through how we mine and refine silver along with the growing demand for the metal which will fuel the economy of the future.

Getting Silver Out of the Ground

Like many other metals, silver is found in the Earth’s crust and primarily mined using heavy machinery and explosives.

Once a silver bearing ore body has been identified and can be mined at a reasonable cost, the mining method is chosen depending on the nature of the ore body along with other factors like location and infrastructure:

  • Open pit mining: Best for mining large amounts of lower grade silver ore near the surface
  • Underground shaft mining: Best for following and mining high-grade veins of silver ore further underground

While in open pit mining a huge volume of land is displaced across a large surface area, it is typically safer overall compared to underground mines.

Despite their differences, both methods ultimately use explosives to break up chunks of ore into easily transportable pieces that are then brought to crushing facilities for the next step.

Crushing and Separating Mined Silver Ore

Once the ore has been mined and transported out of the mine, it goes through a variety of crushers which break down the ore into small chunks. The chunks of silver ore are crushed and ground into a fine powder, allowing for the separation process to begin.

There are two primary methods of silver separation, and both involve mixing the silver ore powder with water to form a slurry.

In the flotation process of separation, chemicals are added to the slurry to make any silver and lead water repellent. Air bubbles are then blown through the slurry, with the silver and lead sticking to the bubbles and rising to the top of the slurry where they are separated and dried out.

In the tank leaching and Merill-Crowe process, cyanide is added to the slurry to ensure the silver dissolves into the solution. Then, solids are filtered out in a settling tank, with the silver solution deaerated before zinc powder is added. The solution then passes through a set of filter plates and presses which collect the zinc and silver precipitate which is dried off.

Processing and Refining to Pure Silver

Once the silver ore has been largely broken down and separated from much of the waste rock, the silver must be completely extracted from the remaining metals. Typically, two different processes are used depending on the other metal that must be separated from.

  • Electrolytic Refining (Copper): This method places the copper-silver concentrate in an electrolytic cell within an electrolyte solution. Electricity is passed through the solution, resulting in the copper and silver separating out to opposite ends of the cell. The process is repeated until only silver remains, which is then collected and smelted to remove any remaining impurities.
  • Parkes Process (Lead): This method adds zinc to the molten lead-silver solution, since silver is attracted to zinc while lead is repelled. The silver and zinc compound floats to the top and is skimmed off before being heated and distilled until only pure silver remains.

Silver’s Growing Industry and Investment Demand

In 2020, 784.4 million ounces of silver were mined across the world according to Metals Focus. While production is forecasted to increase by ~8% to reach 848.5 million ounces in 2021, it’s still greatly outpaced by growing demand for silver.

Silver demand is forecasted to see a 15% YoY increase from 2020’s 896.1 million ounces to 1,033 million ounces forecasted for 2021. Solar panels have been one of the largest industrial drivers for silver demand, with demand more than doubling since 2014, from 48.4 million ounces to 105 million ounces forecasted for 2021.

YearSilver Production (in million ounces)YoY % ChangeTotal Silver Demand (in million ounces)YoY % Change
2017862.9-4.1%966.0-3.1%
2018848.4-1.7%989.82.5%
2019833.2-1.8%995.40.6%
2020784.4-5.9%896.1-9.9%
2021F848.58.2%1,033.015.3%

Investment has also been a key demand driver for silver, especially since Reddit’s WallStreetBets crowd began pursuing the possibility of a silver short squeeze. Net physical investment demand rose 29.4% from 2017’s 156.2 million ounces to 200.5 million ounces in 2020, and 2021 is forecasted to see a 26.1% increase with a net investment demand of 252.8 million ounces.

Whether driven by investors or industries, silver is in high demand as the world shifts to newer and greener technologies. The process of silver mining, extraction, and refining will continue to play a pivotal role in supplying the world with the silver it needs.

Click for Comments

Electrification

The Key Minerals in an EV Battery

Which key minerals power the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles?

Published

on

minerals in an EV battery infographic

Breaking Down the Key Minerals in an EV Battery

Inside practically every electric vehicle (EV) is a lithium-ion battery that depends on several key minerals that help power it.

Some minerals make up intricate parts within the cell to ensure the flow of electrical current. Others protect it from accidental damage on the outside.

This infographic uses data from the European Federation for Transport and Environment to break down the key minerals in an EV battery. The mineral content is based on the ‘average 2020 battery’, which refers to the weighted average of battery chemistries on the market in 2020.

The Battery Minerals Mix

The cells in the average battery with a 60 kilowatt-hour (kWh) capacity—the same size that’s used in a Chevy Bolt—contained roughly 185 kilograms of minerals. This figure excludes materials in the electrolyte, binder, separator, and battery pack casing.

MineralCell PartAmount Contained in the Avg. 2020 Battery (kg)% of Total
GraphiteAnode52kg28.1%
AluminumCathode, Casing, Current collectors35kg18.9%
NickelCathode29kg15.7%
CopperCurrent collectors20kg10.8%
SteelCasing20kg10.8%
ManganeseCathode10kg5.4%
CobaltCathode8kg4.3%
LithiumCathode6kg3.2%
IronCathode5kg2.7%
TotalN/A185kg100%

The cathode contains the widest variety of minerals and is arguably the most important and expensive component of the battery. The composition of the cathode is a major determinant in the performance of the battery, with each mineral offering a unique benefit.

For example, NMC batteries, which accounted for 72% of batteries used in EVs in 2020 (excluding China), have a cathode composed of nickel, manganese, and cobalt along with lithium. The higher nickel content in these batteries tends to increase their energy density or the amount of energy stored per unit of volume, increasing the driving range of the EV. Cobalt and manganese often act as stabilizers in NMC batteries, improving their safety.

Altogether, materials in the cathode account for 31.3% of the mineral weight in the average battery produced in 2020. This figure doesn’t include aluminum, which is used in nickel-cobalt-aluminum (NCA) cathode chemistries, but is also used elsewhere in the battery for casing and current collectors.

Meanwhile, graphite has been the go-to material for anodes due to its relatively low cost, abundance, and long cycle life. Since the entire anode is made up of graphite, it’s the single-largest mineral component of the battery. Other materials include steel in the casing that protects the cell from external damage, along with copper, used as the current collector for the anode.

Minerals Bonded by Chemistry

There are several types of lithium-ion batteries with different compositions of cathode minerals. Their names typically allude to their mineral breakdown.

For example:

  • NMC811 batteries cathode composition:
    80% nickel
    10% manganese
    10% cobalt
  • NMC523 batteries cathode composition:
    50% nickel
    20% manganese
    30% cobalt

Here’s how the mineral contents differ for various battery chemistries with a 60kWh capacity:

battery minerals by chemistry

With consumers looking for higher-range EVs that do not need frequent recharging, nickel-rich cathodes have become commonplace. In fact, nickel-based chemistries accounted for 80% of the battery capacity deployed in new plug-in EVs in 2021.

Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries do not use any nickel and typically offer lower energy densities at better value. Unlike nickel-based batteries that use lithium hydroxide compounds in the cathode, LFP batteries use lithium carbonate, which is a cheaper alternative. Tesla recently joined several Chinese automakers in using LFP cathodes for standard-range cars, driving the price of lithium carbonate to record highs.

The EV battery market is still in its early hours, with plenty of growth on the horizon. Battery chemistries are constantly evolving, and as automakers come up with new models with different characteristics, it’ll be interesting to see which new cathodes come around the block.

Continue Reading

Electrification

Charted: Home Heating Systems in the U.S.

Which fuels do U.S. home heating systems use?

Published

on

home heating systems in the U.S. broken down by share of fuel sources

Charted: Home Heating Systems in the U.S.

Fossil fuel combustion for the heating of commercial and residential buildings accounts for roughly 13% of annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Decarbonizing the U.S. economy requires a switch from fossil fuel-combusting heating solutions to renewable energy sources that generate electricity.

Currently, the majority of new homes in the U.S. still combust natural gas for heating through forced-air furnaces or boilers. Just like cars need to be electric, homes will need to switch to electricity-powered heating systems that use renewable energy sources.

The graphic above uses census data to break down the different heating systems and fuels that are warming the 911,000 single-family homes built in the U.S. in 2020.

Types of Home Heating Systems

Most American homes use one of the following three heating systems:

  • Forced-air Furnaces: These typically have a burner in a furnace that is fueled by natural gas. A blower forces cold air through a heat exchanger which warms it up before it flows through ducts that heat the home with air as the medium.
  • Heat Pumps: The most common type of heat pumps are air-source heat pumps, which collect hot air from outside the home and concentrate it before pumping it through ducts that heat the air inside. They are usually powered by electricity. During warmer months, heat pumps can reverse themselves to cool the home, transferring hot air from the inside to the outdoors.
  • Hot Water/Steam: These systems typically work by boiling water (or generating steam) to the appropriate temperature using gas and sending it through a home’s pipes to radiators that heat the air.

How Home Heating Fuels Have Changed

U.S. home heating has been going through a transition over the last two decades. Electricity has steadily been replacing gas and biofuel/wood-powered home heating systems for new homes, and powers almost half of the heating systems in single-family homes built in 2020.

Here’s how the share of heat sources for new houses changed between 2000 and 2020:

Fuel2000 % of Heating for New Homes2020 % of Heating for New Homes
Gas70%55%
Electricity27%45%
Other4%1%

Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding.

While electricity’s share has grown since 2000, most American homes are still heated with gas largely because of the fossil fuel’s affordability.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), households relying on gas for space heating are expected to spend an average of $746 over the winter months, compared to $1,268 for electricity, and $1,734 for heating oil.

Heating in Newly-Built Houses Today

Of the 911,000 new single-family homes, 538,000 houses installed forced-air furnaces. Of these, 83% or nearly 450,000 homes used gas as the primary heating source, with 16% opting for electrified furnaces. By contrast, 88% of the 353,000 homes that installed heat pumps relied on electricity.

Here’s how the heating systems and fuels break down for single-family homes built in 2020:

System UsedHouses Built in 2020% Powered by Gas% Powered by Electricity% Powered by Other
Forced-Air Furnace538,00083%16%<0.5%
Heat Pump353,00012%88%0%
Hot Water/Steam8,00089%5%7%
Other/None12,00012%41%47%

Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding.

Fewer than 1% of new single-family homes used hot water or steam systems, and the majority of those that did relied on gas as the primary fuel. Around 1.3% of new homes used other systems like electric baseboard heaters, smaller space heaters, panel heaters, or radiators.

While gas remains the dominant heating source today, efforts to decarbonize the U.S. economy could further prompt a shift towards electricity-based heating systems, with electric heat pumps likely taking up a larger piece of the pie.

Continue Reading

Subscribe

Latest News

The latest news from our sponsors:

Popular