Battery minerals from Finland: improving the supply chain for the EU battery industry

Original article: European Geologist Journal

Battery raw materials (cobalt, lithium, graphite, and nickel) are essential for a technologically-advanced low-carbon society. Most of these commodities are produced in just a few countries, which leads to supply risk as well as environmental and ethical issues. Finland, with its available mineral resources (deposits and mines), industry (metallurgy, refining) and technical expertise (know-how, automation), has the ideal ecosystem to tackle the challenge of improving the rechargeable battery raw materials supply chain and securing sustainable sources for Europe. The profitable extraction of these commodities in a competitive market is a complex function of key ore properties that drive extraction process performance and are directly linked to deposit geology and ore mineralogy. Hence, geometallurgy – which combines geological and metallurgical information to improve resource management, optimise extraction, and reduce technical risks – is the key multidisciplinary approach to tackling the challenge of sustainable and responsible EU domestic production of battery raw materials.

With the “electric revolution” almost upon us, rechargeable batteries are likely to be the next key enabling technology for the transition towards a fossil fuel-free future for humankind. Batteries are essential for our high-tech devices (such as smartphones, tablets and laptops), our mobility through electric vehicles (EVs), and for our general energy supply (energy storage systems). The battery production industry will be challenged by predicted increased demand in the foreseeable future. While the vast majority of the batteries for EVs are currently manufactured in Asia, European car companies have expressed their interest in producing domestically with local battery manufacturing capabilities. Whilst more efficient recycling of materials will be achieved in the foreseeable future, as proposed by the concept of the circular economy, battery raw materials (e.g., cobalt, lithium, graphite, and nickel), which represent about 50% of the costs of the battery cells, still need to be extracted from natural resources to meet our growing societal needs. Raw material production has therefore an important role in enhancing the competitiveness of the European battery production. Currently the production of battery raw materials is concentrated in a few countries outside the EU, especially for cobalt and graphite, with about 70% of the global cobalt supply coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)  and 64% of the global graphite supply from China (USGS, 2020). Hence, the effective and efficient recovery of these minerals to supply the required battery ecosystem is fast becoming a strategic priority for Europe. Finland is one of the most important EU countries supplying battery raw materials to the EU market, meeting 66% of the EU demand for cobalt ores and concentrates and 16% of the demand for nickel (European Commission, 2018).

Battery minerals in Finland are found in a variety of mineral deposit types, often polymetallic, especially for nickel (Ni), copper (Cu) and cobalt (Co). To determine whether battery raw materials can be profitably recovered (as a main or by-product) from these deposits, one must assess three key factors: (i) the amount of material that can be mined and recovered as a marketable product; (ii) their typical recovery efficiency (which depends on the technologies used for recovery) and (iii) the relative costs and benefits of battery raw material (by-product) recovery (Mudd et al., 2013). All of these factors are a complex function of key ore properties; they are directly linked to the deposit type and ore mineralogy and drive extraction process performance. These complex considerations can be linked through the development of integrated approaches supported by the discipline called geometallurgy. Geometallurgy could be considered as the next generation of mineral processing, where more effective recovery is achieved and a better understanding is reached of what waste products are produced. This allows more sophisticated stewardship of ore deposits and better management of waste, where future re-mining of tailings dams and waste dumps will be an activity in the circular economy.

The Finnish-based circular ecosystem of battery metals consortium (BATCircle), led by Aalto University, aims at improving the manufacturing processes of the mining industry, metals industry and battery chemicals, and increasing the recycling of lithium-ion batteries. The goal is to strengthen the cooperation between companies and research organisations in Finland and to find new business opportunities. Within this framework, the Geological Survey of Finland (GTK) is developing integrated solutions for Finnish battery mineral resources through the application of a geometallurgical approach to key battery minerals exploration projects in Finland.

The aim of this article is to present the Finnish battery ecosystem in terms of mineral resources and raw material production and introduce current developments to improve the battery raw material supply chain at the Finnish and EU level, through the example of the BATCircle and BATTRACE projects []