MADRID – Once largely forgotten, mining companies are increasingly starting to focus their attention on rare-earth metals, vandadium and lithium, all of which are crucial for modern technology and automotive sectors and increasingly important for the manufacturing of electric batteries and the storage of renewable energy.
“Ten or fifteen years ago they were worth zero, because they were not used at all,” Francisco Bellon, the executive vice president of Berkeley Energia, a Spanish company, told Efe in an interview.
This situation has changed radically. In Spain, as with much of the rest of the world, there has been a spike in the number of requests for research permits for the metals that, until recently, had been largely overlooked.
That is not to suggest that their demand has eclipsed that for more “traditional” materials, which are still necessary in the technology world.
The list of strategic minerals is in a constant state of flux as technological developments inform new findings but for general director of the National Confederation of Mining and Metallurgy Businessmen (Confedem), Vicente Gutierrez, the metals of the future are “those that are related with energy transition.”
Thus, the price of vanadium – used in batteries – or the demand for lithium or cobalt grows exponentially.
The following list includes the strategic raw materials and their applications within the sector:
RARE-EARTH METALS: A group of seventeen metals from the periodic table – which includes yttrium, cerium or gadolinium – used for the manufacturing of cell phones or computers. Rare-earth metals are found in screens, microphones, cameras, storage or infrared memories, among other applications.
VANADIUM: Vanadium batteries are manufactured exclusively with this metal and are capable of yielding large amounts of energy while being charged, so they are used in both wind or solar generators and electric cars.
LITHIUM: A metal that is also used in rechargeable batteries and that is instrumental for the electric car industry.
COBALT: The lithium batteries in electric vehicles would not work without cobalt, making it essential for the automobile industry.
TANTALUM: Used in the capacitors that store and distribute energy, so the loading and unloading of devices such as mobiles or computers depend on tantalum.
NIOBIUM: Used for engines, rockets or combustion equipment due to its high resistance to heat.
INDIUM: Found on all types of screens because it is a conductive and transparent metal. It is also used together with germanium in engines and wind generators and is essential in photovoltaic energy.
ANTIMONY: Hardens lead in storage batteries. It also has flame retardant properties and is used for the creation of car and airplane furniture.
TUNGSTEN: Found in X-ray tubes, on televisions, in the filaments of cables, in the contacts of switches and electric current or in welding.
GERMANIUM: Found in fiber-optic networks, infrared technology, solar panels, CDs or DVDs and also in lasers because it allows a smaller and more accurate wavelength.
COPPER: Electric cars use copper, computers and wind turbines rely on this metal too because of its high capacity to store energy.
LEAD: Used in both electric batteries and heavy vehicle batteries. It is also used for medical equipment to protect from radiation in clinical analysis, in video reproduction or cable coverings.
GOLD: Mainly used in jewelry production but it is also a good conductor of electricity and is corrosion resistant and as such was put to other uses towards the end of the 20th century in computers, telecommunications equipment, aviation reactors and spacecraft.
ZINC: Used in galvanized and steel cladding or electronic devices such as computers.
IRON: In addition to its use in the steel industry and for alloys with other metals, such as steel, iron is used to make computers.
STRONTIUM: Present in the petrochemical sector, in the processes of oil and natural gas extraction, although it also appears in the manufacturing of magnets and the lighting industry.
TIN: Used in cladding or welding electrical circuits.