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Thu Nov 19, 2020, 06:23 PM

COVID-19 disruptions to tech-metals supply are a wake-up call

Solar panels, wind turbines and batteries need silicon, cobalt, lithium and more to convert and store energy. Access to these elements, known as technology metals, is crucial for combating climate change. Some 3 billion tonnes of metals and minerals will be needed to decarbonize the global energy system by 2050, the World Bank estimates1. Supplies were stretched before COVID-19. Now, the tech-metals sector is in disarray.

The pandemic has partly or wholly closed hundreds of mines, smelters and refineries (see go.nature.com/3ehkn9g). Metals production will be at least one-third lower this year than last, with an estimated potential loss worldwide of almost US$9 billion in revenue.

South American and African mines have been hit the hardest. Peru stopped producing iron and tin completely in April and is still trying to get back to 80% of former levels. South Africa’s mines, including those for platinum-group metals, were closed in March and have run at half capacity since May — levels that are financially unviable in the long run.

Industrial demand for metals has fallen in the global slowdown2. Factory and border closures have disrupted international supply chains, too. For example, lockdowns in China interrupted supplies of almost half of the world’s battery materials earlier in the year. The city of Wuhan, where the virus was first reported, is a major manufacturing hub for vehicles and batteries. Its plants were shut from the end of January until April.

Metals markets are volatile as a result. Prices are expected to fall by 13% on average this year2, with decreases ranging from 0.5–4.5% for platinum, copper and aluminium, to 11% for zinc and 17% for nickel. By contrast, some scarce materials face price spikes and fierce competition to secure supplies3–5. These include rare earth elements (such as cerium, yttrium, lanthanum and neodymium), which are used in computer chips, mobile phones, batteries and magnets. Demand for them is soaring because many countries want to boost their renewable-energy sectors to stimulate and decarbonize their economies6.


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