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The Raw Materials That Fuel the Green Revolution

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The Raw Materials That Fuel the Green Revolution

The Raw Materials That Fuel the Green Revolution

View the high resolution version of today’s graphic by clicking here.

Records for renewable energy consumption were smashed around the world in 2017.

Looking at national and state grids, progress has been extremely impressive. In Costa Rica, for example, renewable energy supplied five million people with all of their electricity needs for a stretch of 300 consecutive days. Meanwhile, the U.K. broke 13 green energy records in 2017 alone, and California’s largest grid operator announced it got 67.2% of its energy from renewables (excluding hydro) on May 13, 2017.

The corporate front is also looking promising, and Google has led the way by buying 536 MW of wind power to offset 100% of the company’s electricity usage. This makes the tech giant the biggest corporate purchaser of renewable energy on the planet.

But while these examples are plentiful, this progress is only the tip of the iceberg – and green energy still represents a small but rapidly growing segment. For a full green shift to occur, we’ll need to 10x what we’re currently sourcing from renewables.

To do this, we will need to procure massive amounts of natural resources – they just won’t be the fossil fuels that we’re used to.

Green Metals Required

Today’s infographic comes from Cambridge House as a part of the lead-up to their flagship conference, the Vancouver Resource Investment Conference 2018.

A major theme of the conference is sustainable energy – and the math indeed makes it clear that to fully transition to a green economy, we’ll need vast amounts of metals like copper, silicon, aluminum, lithium, cobalt, rare earths, and silver.

These metals and minerals are needed to generate, store, and distribute green energy. Without them, the reality is that technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries, nuclear reactors, and electric vehicles are simply not possible.

First Principles

How do you get a Tesla to drive over 300 miles (480 km) on just one charge?

Here’s what you need: a lightweight body, a powerful electric motor, a cutting-edge battery that can store energy efficiently, and a lot of engineering prowess.

Putting the engineering aside, all of these things need special metals to work. For the lightweight body, aluminum is being substituted in for steel. For the electric motor, Tesla is using AC induction motors (Model S and X) that require large amounts of copper and aluminum. Meanwhile, Chevy Bolts and soon Tesla will use permanent magnet motors (in the Model 3) that use rare earths like neodymium, dysprosium, and praseodymium.

The batteries, as we’ve shown in our five-part Battery Series, are a whole other supply chain challenge. The lithium-ion batteries used in EVs need lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and many other metals or minerals to function. Each Tesla battery, by the way, weighs about 1,200 lbs (540 kg) and makes up 25% the total mass of the car.

While EVs are a topic we’ve studied in depth, the same principles apply for solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors, grid-scale energy storage solutions, or anything else we need to secure a sustainable future. Solar panels need silicon and silver, while wind turbines need rare earths, steel, and aluminum.

Even nuclear, which is the safest energy type by deaths per TWh and generates barely any emissions, needs uranium in order to generate power.

The Pace of Progress

The green revolution is happening at a breakneck speed – and new records will continue to be set each year.

Over $200 billion was invested into renewables in 2016, and more net renewable capacity was added than coal and gas put together:

Power TypeNet Global Capacity Added (2016)
Renewable (excl. large hydro)138 GW
Coal54 GW
Gas37 GW
Large hydro15 GW
Nuclear10 GW
Other flexible capacity5 GW

The numbers suggest that this is the only start of the green revolution.

However, to fully work our way off of fossil fuels, we will need to procure large amounts of the metals that make sustainable energy possible.

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Charted: Global Uranium Reserves, by Country

We visualize the distribution of the world’s uranium reserves by country, with 3 countries accounting for more than half of total reserves.

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A cropped chart visualizing the distribution of the global uranium reserves, by country.

Charted: Global Uranium Reserves, by Country

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

There can be a tendency to believe that uranium deposits are scarce from the critical role it plays in generating nuclear energy, along with all the costs and consequences related to the field.

But uranium is actually fairly plentiful: it’s more abundant than gold and silver, for example, and about as present as tin in the Earth’s crust.

We visualize the distribution of the world’s uranium resources by country, as of 2021. Figures come from the World Nuclear Association, last updated on August 2023.

Ranked: Uranium Reserves By Country (2021)

Australia, Kazakhstan, and Canada have the largest shares of available uranium resources—accounting for more than 50% of total global reserves.

But within these three, Australia is the clear standout, with more than 1.7 million tonnes of uranium discovered (28% of the world’s reserves) currently. Its Olympic Dam mine, located about 600 kilometers north of Adelaide, is the the largest single deposit of uranium in the world—and also, interestingly, the fourth largest copper deposit.

Despite this, Australia is only the fourth biggest uranium producer currently, and ranks fifth for all-time uranium production.

CountryShare of Global
Reserves
Uranium Reserves (Tonnes)
🇦🇺 Australia28%1.7M
🇰🇿 Kazakhstan13%815K
🇨🇦 Canada10%589K
🇷🇺 Russia8%481K
🇳🇦 Namibia8%470K
🇿🇦 South Africa5%321K
🇧🇷 Brazil5%311K
🇳🇪 Niger5%277K
🇨🇳 China4%224K
🇲🇳 Mongolia2%145K
🇺🇿 Uzbekistan2%131K
🇺🇦 Ukraine2%107K
🌍 Rest of World9%524K
Total100%6M

Figures are rounded.

Outside the top three, Russia and Namibia both have roughly the same amount of uranium reserves: about 8% each, which works out to roughly 470,000 tonnes.

South Africa, Brazil, and Niger all have 5% each of the world’s total deposits as well.

China completes the top 10, with a 3% share of uranium reserves, or about 224,000 tonnes.

A caveat to this is that current data is based on known uranium reserves that are capable of being mined economically. The total amount of the world’s uranium is not known exactly—and new deposits can be found all the time. In fact the world’s known uranium reserves increased by about 25% in the last decade alone, thanks to better technology that improves exploration efforts.

Meanwhile, not all uranium deposits are equal. For example, in the aforementioned Olympic Dam, uranium is recovered as a byproduct of copper mining occurring at the same site. In South Africa, it emerges as a byproduct during treatment of ores in the gold mining process. Orebodies with high concentrations of two substances can increase margins, as costs can be shared for two different products.

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