I participated in a panel discussion a couple of weeks ago, where we talked about battery minerals and mining. The discussion was in Finnish, and you can find it in the Tiedekulma YouTube channel. Inspired by the event, I decided to write this blog about mining.

Mining has been at least in Finland a topic that has raised a lot of concerns. But on the other hand, without mining we do not have the minerals that are needed for the green transition and to cut down the greenhouse gas emissions. So, is mining good – or is it bad?

Why we need minerals

Several minerals are needed to build for example batteries that are the key to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from transportation. Transportation causes one sixth of the global greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, electrifying the transportation, which means using electric vehicles (EVs) instead of internal combustion engine vehicles, can significantly help to cut down the emissions. Batteries are also need for stationary storage applications to store energy from wind and sun.

Recent news regarding the global warming have shown that we need to cut down the emissions quickly. After a steady rise of temperatures during the past decades, year 2023 has been exceptionally warm.

Which minerals are needed for batteries

Batteries require materials such as lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel, manganese, iron, phosphorous, copper, and aluminium. But not all batteries are the same. Let’s, for simplicity, focus on the EV batteries. The highest energy density batteries in EVs are so called Li-NMC batteries, which use lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt on the cathode side. Another common battery type in EVs is the LFP battery, which uses lithium iron phosphate as the cathode. The LFP battery does not have as high energy density. Thus, the range is shorter. However, LFP batteries are cheaper than NMC batteries, which makes them more and more popular.

Even though the battery chemistry might vary a bit, all the currently used EV batteries have two electrode materials in common. They all use at least lithium and graphite.

Where do the battery minerals come from

Most of the battery minerals come from underground. For example, lithium can be extracted either from brine deposits or from mineral ores. Brine deposits are concentrated water deposits, which are pumped on the surface of Earth where the water is evaporated away over months or even years. The remaining highly concentrated brine will be then used to prepare lithium with different chemical treatments and filtering steps. Mineral ores are hard rock materials, which are mined. They have often a higher concentration of lithium than the brine, but the processing costs are higher due to mining.

Let’s then look at graphite, which is the other electrode material (in addition to lithium) that is currently always used in EV batteries. The graphite used in batteries can be either natural or synthetic. Both materials consist of well-organized layers of graphene sheets. Natural graphite is a natural element mineral, and it is mined. Synthetic graphite is produced by graphitizing amorphous carbon, which is derived for example from petroleum.

Currently, most of the battery materials are primary materials, which means that they have not been used in batteries before and come from mining and extraction from the ground. The goal is to gradually increase the amount of recycled materials in batteries. These are called secondary materials. But we do not yet have enough end-of-life batteries to provide raw materials for all the new batteries. Thus, for the next 20 years or so, we need to get a substantial amount of materials from mines.

Europe mines and refines only a minor part of the materials that we use for battery production. Graphite comes mainly from China, and lithium in large part from South America and Australia. There is only one lithium mine in Europe, which is in Portugal. Another lithium mine will start in a couple of years in Finland.

Concerns about mining

Even though modern mining is planned to actively mitigate negative effects, mining is not unproblematic. Mines clearly change the landscape, which already disturbs the scenery visually. But there are also other effects.

For example, lithium extraction from brines consumes large volumes of water. As described in a recent publication, as much as 90% of the original water is lost during the evaporation process, and fresh water is needed also in multiple steps in the refining process. There has been also news about soil and water contamination due to mines.

Also, social concerns exist. The known, but unfortunately not the only example of social issues, is mining of cobalt in Kongo. We have seen images of children working in cobalt mines and the working conditions are horrible even for adults.

Concerns about not mining (in Europe)

So, since mining is problematic, is it only a good thing that Europe does not have many mines? Well, not really. If we would have more mines in Europe, we could control the working and environmental safety conditions better. We could make sure that mining is done according to ethical standards.

Without mines, Europe is also heavily dependent on minerals from other continents. There are risks in supply and the recent years have shown that the supply chains can be very vulnerable. European electric car industry will suffer if the supply chains for battery materials are not working.

One example of potential issues is the recent announcement that China will tighten the export of graphite materials. As China refines 90 % of the graphite used worldwide, this can be a big problem for Europe.

Europe is taking actions to overcome these issues. The recently published Critical Raw Materials Act is targeting to increase critical raw material production in Europe to cover 10 % of the EU’s annual consumption for extraction and 40 % for processing of critical minerals by 2030. In practise, this means for example faster permitting processes. And to clarify, faster permitting does not mean less strict permissions. It means that we should have more people working with the permissions or find other methods to reduce the waiting times.

How much mining is needed

I have heard estimations that the need for mining for the green transition is less than is needed if we continue as usual and use for example coal for heating and generating electricity. Recently, there was a publication about this topic. The authors had calculated that the annual amount of ore extracted in 2021 was 12.5 Gt, and it could be reduced by 45 % if we succeed in the green transition. This is since we do not need to have as many coal mines anymore.


So, we need mining. Otherwise, it is not possible to make for example Li-ion batteries and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, and we will see temperatures rising. But we can do our best to reduce the need for mining.

The simplest, but anyway challenging option, is to consume less. We should carefully consider if we need new “things”, or could we use a bicycle or public transportation instead of a car, or could we lower the room temperatures at home during winter (and if you are using air conditioning during summers, how cool temperatures you need?). All this will help to slow down the climate change. And this gives more time for the researchers and industry to develop methods for clean and sustainable energy production and storage.

We should also use the critical materials wisely. It does not make sense to use especially high energy density Li-ion batteries for stationary energy storage, where the size and weight of the battery is not very critical. Na-ion batteries or flow batteries would be good options for stationary storage applications. Of course, recycling is a must. And methods to increase the battery lifetime are relevant too.

We have no time to wait. And not a single solution that will solve the climate crisis.

But what all of us can do, starting today, is indeed to consume less. It does not have to make life boring. For example, I am testing if I can use the same dress every day. Fast fashion has a significant carbon footprint too! I have been now wearing the same black dress at work for more than two months. And it has worked perfectly! It is made from wool, and kind of even cleans by itself when I leave it hanging outside for the night. And I do not have to use energy to think what to wear (even if I will end up in YouTube 😉). I think nobody has even noticed that I wear the dress all the time.

Choose what works best for you.