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Clean energy-critical mining has a big human rights problem. These startups are unearthing solutions

aerial satellite view of lithium mine overlayed with graphic of Robert Downey Jr. holding a mineral
Salar de Atacama, Chile lithium mine satellite Creative Commons image with illustrations by Nate Merritt (Graphic by Miquéla Thornton)

“We have to step back and say, ‘Well first of all, if we don’t electrify the global economy, what happens?’” Kurt House, the president of the AI-powered lithium mining startup KoBold Metals asked on a May episode of the BBC World Service Africa Daily podcast.

He answered bluntly: “If we don’t electricify the global economy, the world fries. Global warming just gets worse and worse and worse and worse. We have to move off fossil fuels,” he said emphasizing the need to do so in every sector. “We have no choice.”

At the heart of the electrification movement is mining of critical minerals and rare earth elements. And according to KoBold, the mining must be done without human exploitation and with a minimized effect on the environment.

Currently, however, that’s not the case in the majority of the mining business.

KoBold has about half a dozen projects in Zambia, a country that when coupled with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) houses the majority of the world’s copper and cobalt: two of several critical minerals identified as vital to the clean energy transition and according to a report released last week by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center — a U.K.-based human rights non-profit — these minerals are two of six associated with major human rights violations.

With plans to make at least two-thirds of all vehicles sold in the U.S. electric within a decade, Africa is put in a unique position, the host of the Africa Daily podcast, Alan Kasujja said, not only because African countries could bring in “millions if not billions of revenue” from critical mineral mining, but because put simply, “mining doesn’t have the best reputation on the continent.”

Nor does it have the best reputation in many other parts of the world.

The problem with mining

Copper, lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, and zinc — these are the metals identified by the non-profit at the center of 510 alleged violations globally.

These violations range from human rights abuses like assaults, child labor, arbitrary arrests, and detentions to instances of environmental degradation like the pollution of drinking water and other natural resources, as well as the violation of failing to consult a community before digging into the land they call home.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Center assembled a database with evidence of each of these violations all around the world by mining 93 companies in Congo, China, and Chile, to Sweden, Luxembourg, and the United States.

This article by Katie Surma at Inside Climate News digs deep into the report, excavating its findings, but at the core of the data is this: the U.S. and other nations are providing incentives for mining — such as the tax breaks earmarked in the Inflation Reduction Act — without enacting adequate labor and environmental safeguards. The most problematic of these minerals are lithium and cobalt, because of all rare earths, these two are the most crucial as the world shifts to electric vehicles.

Others, which are typically used in smartphones and other electronics, are used in a variety of electrification tech like solar panels and wind turbines.

a black and white image of two African miners working in an underground copper mine in Northern Rhodesia
Two miners working in an underground copper mine in Northern Rhodesia some time in the early 1950s (Image Credit: Information Department of Northern Rhodesia)

In an ideal world, due diligence laws would require companies to identify, prevent and remedy human rights violations as well as environmental degradation. Without these safeguards not are people and the planet put at risk, but according to the International Energy Agency, the supply chain of critical minerals is also shaken.

According to the agency, the adoption of corporate responsibility and industry-wide initiatives is what keeps the critical mineral supply chain stable, especially in an era where, in the words of Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA, “the data shows a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realizing those ambitions.”

While enforced laws and contentious incentives will be the main way this problem will be solved, some startups are taking the issues of exploitation, land degradation, and inefficient mining, which balloons both of the latter issues, into their own technologically savvy hands.

How can mining be done ethically?

One company taking on the challenge the Bill Gates-backed KoBold Metal which uses artificial intelligence to explore land for copper and cobalt. Last year, the Berkeley, California-based startup made headlines with a $150 million investment into its Zambian project.

In addition to a large monetary investment, House emphasized that the project is an “over 50-year commitment” to the region.

“We’re going to build a mine, we’re going to minimize the local impacts, we’re going to ring-fence exactly what actually happens, and when we’re done, we restore it to its original state,” he said. “The overall impact can be made very small. Not zero, but very small as we supply the world with these critical materials.”

In order to keep its impact small, KoBold uses AI to scan areas across the three continents it works on to find where the highest concentrations of minerals are. According to House, the team can make “statistically rigorous predictions” so that they only mine in deposits with the highest concentrations.

In addition to the tech-focused operation, they are also ethically focused, House said on the podcast.

“At KoBold our ethics come first. We have a set of ethical principles that ride above all else and we will walk away from lucrative deals if those deals cannot conform to our efforts,” he said. “We have exceptionally high labor standards at the company and we will only invest in places where we are confident that those labor standards can be upheld.”

According to House, these labor standards include creating and heavily training a workforce within the regions they work, from jobs in “skilled engineering” to “IT” to “bring all this copper and cobalt to market.”

Another startup, Ceibo, is also taking a more sustainable approach to mining, by extracting even more copper out of existing mines.

Copper is used for batteries, transmission wires, electric motors, and more, and according to Cristóbal Undurraga, CEO of Ceibo via TechCrunch+, “There’s no energy transition, no decarbonization without some critical minerals.” And one of those essential minerals is copper.

But according to a 2023 McKinsey report, there’s a vast supply gap between the amount of copper available and the copper we need. We need 36.6 million metric tons of the stuff by 2031. According to McKinsey, recycled production can account for about 30 million tons, in which companies like Redwood Materials are emerging as leaders in.

Most recently, Redwood scored a $2 billion loan to build out its battery recycling facility in Nevada to obtain and reuse copper and graphite, aka 80% of the materials cost of a lithium-ion battery.

Already, Redwood has a pilot plant up and running with its recycled copper, and according to the Department of Energy, which provided the loan, it’s aiming to support the production of more than 1 million EVs per year.

Still, when in the future, we’re projected to be 6.6 million tons short in copper, a gap still needs to be filled.

an aerial satellite view of a copper mine
A Chilean copper mine (Creative Commons Image)

That’s where Ceibo comes in. The startup kicked off this month by raising $30 million to scale the tech it's created to fill the tall order.

The round was led by Energy Impact Partners, with participation from a syndicate of new mining-focused investors including CoTec Holdings, Audley, Orion Resources, Unearth, and Pincus Green along with existing investors Khosla Ventures and Aurus Ventures.

The startup is based in Chile, the world capital for copper, however, according to the startup, a number of factors like permitting restraints and declining quality are limiting its production.

In short, nothing lasts forever. That’s why as Ciebo puts it, it has developed “a novel leaching process and solution” that uses existing infrastructure at mines with a lower environmental footprint than the current state-of-the-art, targeting chalcopyrite, aka copper pyrite, and other similar minerals which the team says “hold 70%+ of known copper reserves.”

And according to Undurraga, the approach is going just as planned. “Following positive results from a lengthy validation process using minerals from leading copper companies, we're now poised to rapidly scale our technology,” he said in a statement.

Where Ceibo and KoBold are taking better, innovative practices into countries already rich in critical minerals, other startups are turning to different sources of extraction, rather than the ground.

What if minerals were extracted from an alternative source?

Two startups, Magrathea Metals and Minerva Lithium, are obtaining decarbonization-crucial minerals, but without mining. How are they doing this? Buy extracting magnesium and lithium, respectively, from seawater.

As Minerva, a spinout company from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro explains, electrification is largely dependent on lithium, but traditional lithium mining is expensive, time-consuming, and takes a serious toll on the environment.

Traditional lithium extraction is using done either via the mining of rocks or from brine deposits that require large excavation pools. This brine is a mineral-rich water found deep underground, and according to Minerva, this method is currently unable to meet the future lithium markets.

So, they developed a “unique nanomosaic membrane” filter that is customized to extract lithium from low-concentrated brine.

However, the benefits of its method don’t end at lithium extraction, the startup says. According to Minerva, once the lithium is extracted from the brine, the water can be further purified and reused for uses like agriculture, municipal and industry use, energy production, and even for drinking, which could prove vital in an era of water scarcity.

aerial satellite view of a lithium mine with an illustration of Robert Downey Jr. as a construction worker
A lithium mine in Bolivia with illustrations by Nate Merritt (Graphic by Miquéla Thornton)

On top of all that, Minerva says that their tech can extract lithium without having to go through the extra trouble of filtering out other minerals in the brine like potassium, zinc, bromine, and magnesium — as traditional brine filtration does — all of which they say have further potential for commercialization for the clean energy industry and beyond.

One startup, Magrathea Metal, is already tapping into that with the potential of magnesium.

According to Magrathea, which last week raised a $10 million seed round, “For a century, magnesium has eliminated vehicle deadweight in cars, trucks, planes, helicopters, and in space.” And while magnesium is widely used in China for its lightweight advantage it is less used in the U.S. because of lack of availability.

In fact, there is only one American magnesium producer — Utah-based US Magnesium — that is currently at the center of controversy because of its reliance on the shrinking Great Salt Lake. If the looming threat of being shut down wasn’t enough amid a water crisis, its plant is also a major source of emissions in the state.

However, because magnesium could play a vital role in the energy transition, preserving electric vehicle range in a world of lithium-ion battery supply constraints, Magrathea turned to seawater brine to extract magnesium and make the “world’s first carbon neutral metal,” “without mining.”

“Magnesium metal supply underpins trillions of dollars of trade and national security is impossible without it,” Alex Grant, CEO of Magrathea, said in a statement.

“Further, being so essential for light metal, magnesium has a lead role to play in making electric vehicles cheaper, higher performance, and more efficient, reducing pressure on battery supply chains. We’re excited to have the most respected technology investors on Earth see what we see: magnesium is the metal of motion.”

Its June round saw a myriad of high-profile investors including Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, and Peter Reinhardt, CEO of Charm Industrial, firms like VoLo Earth and Capricorn Investment Group, and other leaders in mining, climate, and technology.

With the money, the San Francisco-based company plans to build a pilot to prove its new generation of electrolytic processes for its mine-free metal.

According to the startup, its method has the potential to minimize the mining crucial for aluminum and steel — both materials ubiquitous in clean tech — further protecting the Earth’s ecosystem while avoiding the cost of mining that is likely bound to increase. On top of that, the startup says its recyclability opens up doors for circularity in its metal production.

Coiled magnesium sheets and magnesium ingots
Coiled magnesium sheets and magnesium ingots (Creative Commons image)

Can the most essential minerals be replaced?

Beyond reducing reliance on traditional steel and aluminum, scientists have also been dabbling with the question of replacing lithium in electric vehicles’ lithium-ion batteries because of the issues associated with its mining.

Earlier this year, a study came out of the Tokyo University of Science that asked the question: can magnesium replace the crucial cathode material in rechargeable lithium batteries? Its conclusion is that magnesium is in fact “a promising candidate.”

Published in the Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry, the scientists wrote that the concerns around lithium batteries are difficult to ignore. Thus, magnesium, which is more abundant, has the potential to realize higher battery capacities.

The study stands on the shoulders of stacks and stacks of research papers on the subject of either creating an alternative lithium or inventing a hybrid battery. The study concludes that magnesium has the energy density potential to act as an alternative to lithium-ion batteries while being cheaper and more sustainable.

Other studies emphasize that there are a number of technical challenges to overcome, like this one published in 2021 in Advances in Mechanical Engineering — yet, the researchers of the 2021 paper state that ultimately further investigation will “result in a feasible product that is suitable to challenge its conventional lithium-ion counterpart.”

The researchers of the 2021 study confidently conclude: “The obstacles associated with these discoveries will eventually be overcome, and a high-performance magnesium ion battery will be established. Upon this, a new and improved rechargeable battery will be introduced, unlocking an even greater prospect for society and the world in general.”

The lead researcher of the Tokyo University of Science study, Professor Yasushi Idemoto, takes it a step further, saying that thanks to magnesium’s higher energy density, “Through future research and development, magnesium batteries could surpass lithium-ion batteries,” which to a greater extent shows the potential for Magrathea’s efforts of creating a U.S. magnesium supply.

Another startup exploring alternatives to lithium-ion batteries is FootPrint Coalition Venture’s portfolio company, Lyten. Lyten’s flagship product, 3-D graphene, is an advanced material that can be used in everything from industrial alloys to electric vehicle batteries.

The heart of Lyten’s 3-D graphene is lithium-sulfur, because as the startup puts it, “lithium-ion made electrification possible,” but “lithium-sulfur will make electrifying everything a reality.”

Unlike lithium-ion batteries, Lyten’s don’t use the critical minerals nickel, cobalt, manganese, or graphite, and with a lower bill of materials, the battery packs are lighter and more sustainable. On top of that, Lyten says it has a higher energy density than lithium-ion, while being able to be produced at existing lithium-ion facilities because of its similarities.

Using 100% domestic materials, Lyten lessens the strain on international mining operations, and today, June 14, the company announced the opening of the very first automated battery pilot line in the U.S. to produce its cleaner, safer, and more ethically sourced batteries.

There are a plethora of solutions for mining that companies are delving into, whether it be taking more ethical approaches like returning to used mines, using AI to only dig at the highest concentrations, and restoring the land when finished, or taking different approaches all together from mineral recycling, excavating from new sources, or finding a completely new alternative to the most essential minerals.

Critical minerals are in fact critical to the energy transition, but they don’t have to be a source of human rights violations and environmental degradation in the same way that the oil and gas industry has, from polluting in the U.S. to exploiting developing and emerging nations. With their solutions, these startups are embarking on a mission to make a future that is not only cleaner but doesn’t repeat the issues of the past.

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