Enabling Clean Energy Applications

Information Bulletin, March 2017

(published in March 2017)

Enabling Clean Energy Applications With Canadian Minerals and Metals

A Look at Canada’s Current and Potential Inputs in Selected Clean Energy Applications

Efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change and transition to a greener, low-carbon economy present unique opportunities for Canada. Minerals and metals already enable many clean technology applications and products, and this information bulletin highlights their importance in materials used in the production of wind turbines, solar cells, and high-density batteries. It underscores the importance of emerging commodities such as lithium, graphite, and rare earth elements (REEs), and base metals such as nickel, copper, and associated by-products that are also key inputs needed to produce clean energy materials.

Wind Turbines

Wind power is a clean, reliable, and affordable source of electricity that has limited environmental impacts. A wind turbine contains hundreds of components, many of which are made from steel or other metal alloys. Steel, concrete, and metals such as copper and aluminum are used to install the turbine and deliver electricity. Certain REEsFootnote 1 are used in permanent magnets that can enhance the conversion of wind energy into electricity and improve reliability by eliminating the need for a gearbox.

REEs are relatively abundant in the earth’s crust, but are rarely found in an economic quantity and concentration. In 2016, REEs were mined in seven countriesFootnote 2 and refined in five Asian and European countries.Footnote 3 China controls the supply of approximately 90% of light REEs and virtually all the supply of heavy REEs. New REE mine supply from Australia will be insufficient to offset expected demand growth, which is anticipated to exceed supply no later than 2020.

Canada has a large and diverse endowment of REE resources, but presently does not have producing REE mines or processing facilities. Significant REE mineral exploration was conducted in Canada over the last decade, leading to the advancement of a number of projects (Table 1). As a result, Canada has the potential to become a significant global producer of REEs and to attract investment in downstream value-added manufacturing. Such investments, particularly in a North American REE processing facility, could reduce supply risks for manufacturers of alloys and permanent magnets used in wind turbines and other applications.

Table 1. Advanced REE ProjectsFootnote 4 in Canada
Project Operator/Owner Location
Port Hope Simpson Search Minerals Inc. N.L.
Strange Lake Quest Rare Minerals Ltd. Que.
Zeus (Kipawa) Matamec Explorations Inc. Que.
Ashram Commerce Resources Corp. Que.
Montviel Geomega Resources Inc. Que.
St-Honoré Magris Resources Inc. Que.
Eco Ridge Pele Mountain Resources Inc. Ont.
Hoidas Lake Navis Resources Corp. Sask.
Nechalacho Avalon Advanced Materials Inc. N.W.T.

Solar Cells

Rapid cost decreases in the production and maintenance of solar electrical systems have improved the long-term outlook for solar energy as a major source of electricity. An International Energy Agency roadmap details how technological improvements, production efficiencies, and government policies could see solar photovoltaic (PV) energy contribute up to 16% of the world’s electricity supply by 2050.Footnote 5

Seven metalsFootnote 6 that enable solar PV technologies are by-products of base-metal and gold production. Global silver mine production is sourced mainly as a by-product from lead-zinc, copper, and gold mines. Refinery production of both cadmium and indium is sourced from zinc processing. High-grade gallium is acquired primarily from bauxite processing, but is also recovered from some zinc residues. Germanium is obtained mostly from zinc, but also from lead and copper. Selenium is recovered mostly at copper refineries, which also contribute more than 90% of tellurium production, with the balance coming from lead refineries and dusts from base-metal smelters. As a key mine producer, processor, and refiner of lead, zinc, copper, and gold, Canada is well positioned to benefit from the anticipated growth of solar PV energy technologies.

The transition to a low-carbon economy creates increased demand for emerging commodities with new properties that may enable innovative technologies. However, base and precious metals will also continue to be important. Figure 1 shows metal mines, smelters, and refineries that produce copper, lead, and/or zinc and by-products, and advanced exploration projectsFootnote 4 (with at least indicated or measured mineral resources or an economic studyFootnote 7) that target copper, lead, and/or zinc. While Canada currently produces and/or processes most metals used in the production of solar cells, additional investments could sustain or expand the production of metals used to convert solar energy to electricity.

Energy Storage

With increased deployment of renewable energy sources, global demand for energy storage technologies is expected to rise. Electric vehicle sales are projected to double by 2020,Footnote 8 increasing the demand for advanced batteries.

Battery technologies are constantly evolving as developers and manufacturers strive to improve performance and reduce costs. Nickel, cobalt, lithium, and graphite are all enablers of advanced battery technologies. Canada is a current producer of nickel, cobalt, and graphite.

Nickel is produced, used, and recycled in higher volumes than other clean energy enablers. Global nickel demand will be driven by the stainless steel, aerospace, and battery manufacturing sectors. Global nickel demand is expected to rise 5.9% in 2017 to 2.13 million tonnes (Mt), chiefly because of increased Chinese stainless steel production and increased demand for batteries for electric vehicles. New sulphide mine supply is needed to sustain smelter and refinery production with a potential shortfall of up to 0.17 Mt/y of nickel in concentrate by 2025.Footnote 9

Canada is a leading global nickel producer and is well positioned to respond to global demand increases. Canada’s primary nickel production increased 10.8% between 2012 and 2015. In 2015, Canada ranked second among the world’s primary nickel producers, accounting for 9.5% of global production, and fourth among refined nickel producers.Footnote 9 Domestic mine production was estimated at approximately 0.233 Mt of nickel in concentrate and refined nickel production was 0.160 Mt.Footnote 10 Canada also imports, processes, and exports nickel feeds, as well as refined nickel and manufactured products. The country hosts a number of exploration projects that target nickel. Eight of these advanced projects have reached a stage where they have produced at least a preliminary economic assessment (Figure 2) and could help Canada sustain or improve its position as a leading supplier of refined nickel.

Cobalt often occurs with nickel, copper, arsenic, or silver, with about 50% of “new” global cobalt supply from nickel production, 44% from copper or other production, and 6% from primary cobalt operations. In 2015, apparent demand was about 87,000 tonnes (t), a 7.5% increase over 2014. Five uses accounted for 82% of cobalt demand, with battery technology leading the way at 42%, followed by superalloys for aerospace applications at 16%. Compound annual demand growth above 5% is likely to be driven by batteries and superalloys.Footnote 11

In 2015, Canada’s refined cobalt production was approximately 5,500 t, or 12.9% of global production, placing the country among the world’s leading producers.Footnote 11 Domestic cobalt mine production originates mainly from nickel mines while refined production is sourced from base-metal smelters and refineries that process domestic and imported feeds. Most nickel projects are likely to have some associated cobalt (Figure 2). Combined with existing processing facilities, Canada is in a strong position to react to growing cobalt demand.

Lithium enters the earth’s crust in magma or hydro-thermal fluids. Subsurface brines became the dominant source of supply in the late 1990s, but demand growth has allowed mineral-sourced lithium to reach about half of the global supply. Lithium production in 2015 was about 33,000 t, a 5% increase from 2014, due to increased lithium use in batteries.Footnote 12 Batteries (35%), ceramics and glass (32%), and lubricating greases (9%) account for about 76% of lithium demand. Canada has 10 lithium projects with at least indicated resources (Figure 2) that could potentially reach production, enabling it to become a significant lithium supplier and spurring downstream value-added manufacturing industries.

Graphite applications include brake linings, foundry operations, lubricants, refractories, steelmaking, and advanced battery storage.Footnote 13 In 2015, China produced 66% of the world’s graphite and consumed 35%. Going forward, graphite demand will be driven by battery manufacturing. A U.S. automaker constructed a plant to manufacture lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) that began production in January 2017. At full capacity, it will require about 93,000 t/y of graphite by 2020. Synthetic graphite powder and secondary graphite generated from machining graphite shapes compete for use in battery applications, but new mines will be needed to supply fine graphite powder. Canada has one graphite mine that, in 2015, accounted for 2.5% of global graphite production, one near-production facility, and seven graphite exploration and development projects with at least indicated mineral resources.

Figure 2 shows metal mines, smelters, and refineries that produce nickel and/or cobalt; advanced exploration projects that target nickel; graphite mines; and graphite and lithium advanced exploration projects and exploration projects with a minimum of measured or indicated mineral resources.Footnote 4

Canada as a Clean Energy Enabler

As noted, Canada produces a number of clean technology enablers and is a prospective producer of others. The country’s dynamic mineral exploration sector; supportive public policies; expertise in mining, processing, and mine financing; and a robust project pipeline provide a strong foundation on which to attract investment and expand output to supply all or most of the critical inputs needed by manufacturers of clean energy materials and products.

Figure 1. Mines, Processing Facilities, and Advanced Exploration Projects Associated
With Inputs for Solar Cells

Figure 1 is a map of Canada displaying the geographic location of metal mines, smelters, and refineries
Text version - Figure 1

Figure 1 is a map of Canada displaying the geographic location of metal mines, smelters, and refineries that produce copper, lead, and/or zinc and associated by-products, as well as advanced exploration projects for these same commodities.

Figure 2. Mines, Processing Facilities, and Exploration Projects Associated With Inputs
for Advanced Batteries

Figure 2 is a map of Canada displaying the geographic location of metal mines, smelters, and refineries
Text version - Figure 2

Figure 2 is a map of Canada displaying the geographic location of metal mines, smelters, and refineries that produce nickel and/or cobalt; advanced exploration projects that target nickel; graphite mines; and graphite and lithium exploration projects and advanced exploration projects.



Note to Reader:

This information bulletin has been prepared on the basis of information available at the time of writing. The authors make no warranty of any kind with respect to the content and accept no liability, either incidental, consequential, financial, or otherwise, arising from the use of this document.

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, as represented by the Minister of Natural Resources, 2017