Aluminium: A New Critical Mineral Frontier
With the transition to a low-carbon world potentially resulting in a large increase in global demand for aluminium, how can concerns around the environmental and geopolitical impact be mitigated?
The concept of critical minerals is not new. In fact, the idea emerged in the US prior to the First World War and was formulated in the 1939 Strategic and Critical Materials Stockpiling Act that focused on materials needed to support the defence industry. However, the concept has seen a resurgence due to an increased focus on the materiality of the low-carbon transition, with the deployment of technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles potentially requiring large amounts of base metals such as copper and steel, along with relatively high levels of a wide range of niche metals, from neodymium to iridium and dysprosium. This has led to policy action in many parts of the world, including the US, China and the EU.
In early July 2023 the EU amended its list of minerals that it deems critical, adding aluminium to the list under its Critical Raw Minerals Act. These are the materials deemed crucial to Europe’s economy – especially in the context of a materially intensive transition away from fossil fuels. Aluminium is also on the US’s critical minerals list. So why is this material, refined from an ore – bauxite – that is extremely abundant and the second most abundant metallic element on Earth, so critical to the future of the global economy?
Aluminium is an important material for a range of technologies that are projected to play a vital role in the low-carbon transition, being used in the frames of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, in the chassis of electric cars, and in the nacelles and platforms of wind turbines. The magnitude of the increase in demand from these sources is inherently uncertain as it depends on the scale of deployment of these technologies, the material intensities of the actual technologies deployed, and the scope for recovery and re-use of material from the end-of-life of the equipment involved. However, studies from organisations such as the World Bank and the International Energy Agency have estimated potentially large increases in the demand for the material from these new energy technologies. The scale of the potential demand for aluminium from just a subset of these technologies could be considerable. Lennon et al (2022) estimate that to meet ambitious scenarios and deploy 60 terawatts of solar PV by 2050, up to 486 million tonnes of aluminium could be required up to 2050, compared to a current global annual production of 69 million tonnes.
Aluminium is not just used for these energy transition technologies – in fact, they only make up a small fraction of total demand. It is a vital material across a wide range of sectors, including construction (accounting for approximately 25% of current demand), transportation (including aircraft and electric vehicles, accounting for 23%), electrical items (including a growing use in transmission lines, making up 12%) and other machinery and equipment (11%).
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