Nickel is a key element in electric vehicles – but its exploitation has an environmental impact

Greg Dipple wants to turn nickel mine waste into large-scale carbon sinks.

The idea, which he developed over two decades, would reduce the environmental impact of mining highly sought-after metals for electric vehicle batteries.

“We can see a path to nickel mining in the future where it will produce a positive net environmental benefit in the context of greenhouse gases,” said Dipple, a professor at the University of British Columbia and founder of Carbin Minerals, an environmental services company.

Dipple’s approach would use tailings – a byproduct of pulverized rock that comes from extracting metals and minerals from ore – like a giant sponge for carbon in the atmosphere.

Once absorbed, the carbon would become rock and remain in the earth over time in a process known as carbon mineralization. Dipple and his colleagues have already scaled football-field-sized projects and contracted with Canadian e-commerce company Shopify to sequester the carbon.

But Dipple said projects like his should be the “last thing” mining companies do. Instead, he said, they should opt to green their operations more holistically.

“It starts with renewable electricity. It includes decarbonizing the transport fleet. You look at all your operations, make them as low carbon as possible, and then the hard to reduce…you take care of your waste” , did he declare.

Increased battery demand

As the world moves towards renewable energy sources, the production of batteries used to store electricity is growing, especially for electric vehicles. Demand for nickel used in electric vehicles is expected to increase 40 times by 2040, according to figures from the International Energy Agency.

Workers install electric car batteries in Haiphong, Vietnam. The demand for nickel is expected to increase significantly over the next few decades due to the growing popularity of electric vehicles. (Nhac Nguyen/AFP/Getty Images)

Due to the energy-intensive processes required to extract the metals and minerals used in batteries, battery production has its own environmental footprint.

Air pollution, water contamination and habitat destruction are all potential side effects of mining nickel, a key metal for current battery technology. Canada is the country of the world sixth largest nickel supplier.

“This really is a situation where having the right environmental regulations and controls in place on the mining industry is going to make a big difference,” said Maddie Stone, a journalist who covers climate change. “They can get pretty dirty without the right environmental protections in place.”

The problems are particularly pronounced outside of Canada, Stone said. Nickel mining in Russia, which produces some of the “worst” air pollution in the world, according to Stone, supplies Western automakers in Europe. Indonesia and the Philippines are also major global suppliers of this product.

But mining experts say Canada has stricter regulations on the industry which, coupled with the country’s climate commitments, mean mining companies are taking a more environmentally friendly approach.

Make the most of the elements already extracted

Dipple’s strategy is just one example of how miners are reducing their environmental footprint

“There’s a lot of talk about the social license to operate mines…to make sure they benefit the communities in which they operate and are constantly greening their operations,” said Sasha Wilson, associate professor and the Canada Research Chair in Biogeochemistry of Sustainable Mineral Resources at the University of Alberta.

“It’s been a really major change over the last half century or so, and it’s still moving in that direction.”

Current changes include shifting mining operations to greener energies, such as wind and solar power, and reducing reliance on fuel-powered transportation.

Trucks drive along a cliff
Dump trucks travel along an access road to a nickel mine in Indonesia. Transportation associated with mining is a significant source of carbon emissions in the mining industry. (Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Experts say that to meet global demand for minerals and metals and improve efficiency, operators need to extract more of what has already been extracted.

The by-product of mined ores may contain additional rare earth elements such as selenium, tellurium and indium which are used in modern technologies.

“We focus on the most economically attractive metals,” said Simon Jowitt, economic geologist and assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Changing inefficient processes, Jowitt said, will require a change in thinking about how mining is done. Currently, many mined products are exported to smelters that cannot or do not want to process certain by-products.

Since the amount of rare earth elements is limited, growers need to make the most of what is available, he said. Otherwise, Jowitt warns the supply chain could struggle to keep up with demand in the coming decades.

“Mine waste from 50 or 60 years ago is now becoming viable targets for some of these metals, so why not get it right the first time?” said Jowitt.

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Mining key to energy transition, experts say

Nickel mining remains a necessary step toward transitioning to green energy — and to powering the modern conveniences societies rely on, Jowitt said.

“If you look at some of the predictions that the World Bank, the International Energy Agency have put out, then there’s no way we can even move towards carbon neutrality without extracting a hell of a lot of stuff.”

Angela Asuncion, a researcher at the University of Guelph who studies the impact of mining on countries in the South, said stronger safeguards against ecological and social harm are needed.

“Mining is essential to the just transition to carbon-neutral economies, but we cannot be complicit in the ways of exploiting natural resources that are extracted in vulnerable countries,” Asuncion said.

A person rides a bicycle on a designated path.
Proponents say greater investment in public transport and cycling infrastructure in urban centers could slow demand for mined elements used in electric vehicle batteries. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images)

Asunción said improve recycling processes for nickel, and other elements, will be essential to reduce the negative impacts associated with mining.

Although it is likely that most nickel can be recycled, the existing stock will not be enough to meet projected demand, and more will still need to be mined, Jowitt and Dipple said.

That’s why advocates like Asuncion say it’s time to reimagine what a low-carbon future will look like. This could mean less reliance on personal vehicles and an increase in public transport and bike lanes in major cities. It also means “focusing on degrowth,” Asuncion said.

“This includes transitioning from new mining to reducing metal and mineral consumption.”

For Dipple, the need to green mining operations is an existential issue, one that is not limited by technology, but by political and social will.

“This is a chance for the mining industry to solve its problems,” he said.

“If they don’t, we’re not going to transform our economy.”

Written by Jason Vermes. Interview with Maddie Stone directed by Yamri Taddese.

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