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Zinc: The Essential, Sustainable, and Versatile Metal

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The following content is sponsored by Trilogy Metals.

What would the world be like without zinc?

Long-running TV show The Simpsons showed us one depiction what this could look like—but in order to truly gauge the impact of the metal on our lives, we need a better understanding of the uses of zinc and its role in modern life.

Zinc’s Role in Modern Life

Zinc is a naturally occurring mineral that is present all around us: from our bodies, foods, and medicines to the buildings we live and work in. Despite this, very few people actually know how it gets there.

This infographic comes to us from Trilogy Metals and looks at the widespread uses of zinc in the modern economy, from construction and infrastructure to health, farming, and green energy.

The Zinc Supply Chain

Zinc is the fourth most used metal in the world behind iron, aluminum, and copper.

Before zinc makes it into its various applications, miners have to extract the metal from the ground. So which countries are the top producers of zinc?

CountryMined Zinc Production (2019, metric tons)Share of World Production (2019)
China4,300,00033%
Peru1,400,00011%
Australia1,300,00010%
Total7,000,00054%

China, Peru, and Australia account for 7 million tons or 54% of the world’s zinc production. Although the U.S. is among the world’s top five zinc producers, it only produced 780,000 metric tons of the silvery metal in 2019—roughly one-fifth of China’s zinc production.

We don’t always use zinc in its raw, metallic form; it is often refined and processed first.

The United States is lagging in the production of refined zinc, with a net import reliance of 87%. As the demand for zinc rises, local sources of mined and refined zinc will be valuable for import-reliant countries like the U.S.

But where does the demand for zinc come from, and what makes it so valuable?

Zinc Strengthens: Infrastructure and Alloys

Zinc is also referred to as the “galvanizing metal” for its role in protecting steel. In fact, galvanizing accounts for around 50% of total annual zinc usage.

Galvanizing with zinc improves steel in various ways:

  • Strength
    Adding zinc as a protective layer provides steel with higher impact strength
  • Longevity
    The zinc coating on galvanized steel lasts around 50 years, allowing structures made from steel to last longer
  • Corrosion-resistance
    Zinc acts as a sacrificial coating for the underlying steel, protecting it from corrosion and rust

From steel-frame buildings and bridges to furniture and automotive body parts, galvanized steel plays a critical role in building sustainable infrastructure.

According to a study by the National Association of Corrosion Engineers, corrosion costs the world $2.5 trillion annually. Given that only 6% of all steel produced annually is galvanized, increasing the use of zinc-coated steel could potentially reduce this economic impact.

Zinc in Alloys

Besides galvanizing, alloying is one of the most common uses of zinc. Zinc’s ability to provide other metals with strength and corrosion-resistance makes it an effective alloying material.

Around 25% of all zinc is used in alloys to create metals such as brass, which are commonly found in household fixtures, plumbing fittings, electronic devices, and musical instruments. Additionally, zinc alloys have a range of engineering applications, thanks to their rigidity, strength, and conductivity.

Zinc Improves: Health and Productivity

Zinc is not only a natural part of our body but also a critical nutrient for our immune systems.

The UN has labeled zinc a “life-saving commodity”—increased access to zinc could prevent 200,000 childhood deaths annually. Zinc is an essential nutrient for various reasons:

  • Helps fight infections
  • Vital for taste and smell
  • Enhances memory and thinking

Furthermore, zinc oxide, a compound produced by oxidizing metallic zinc, is a key ingredient in various health and medicinal products including cosmetics, food additives, and anti-fungal creams.

Zinc in Crops

Besides its critical role in the human body, zinc is also an essential micronutrient for plants.

When farmers add zinc to soils in the form of zinc oxide, it helps their crops resist tough conditions such as drought, salinity, and heat. A stable supply of zinc can also help crops reach higher productivity and yield levels.

As the global population grows, crop productivity will be important in addressing the higher demand for food. Zinc has an essential role to play in making crops resilient and more productive.

Zinc Supports: The Clean Energy Transition

The transition to a low-carbon, clean energy future will be mineral intensive—and zinc is playing a key role in boosting this transition.

Zinc-air batteries are quickly emerging as an efficient clean energy-storage solution that can provide renewable electricity in remote regions. Three factors make zinc-air batteries an integral part of the clean energy transition:

  • Efficient for storing non-constant renewable energy
  • Affordable because of their use of zinc
  • High energy density

In fact, NantEnergy’s zinc-air energy storage systems have already made a significant impact on sustainability.

  • Avoided 50,000 tons of CO2 emissions
  • Reduced 4 million liters of diesel fuel use
  • Provided 200,000 people with access to power

Additionally, zinc protects the steel used to build renewable energy infrastructure. Offshore wind masts are made from zinc thermal sprayed steel to prevent corrosion, and solar PV panels use support structures made of galvanized steel.

Zinc in the Circular Economy

Zinc is part of a circular economy that restores, recovers, and reuses.

For starters, zinc is fully recyclable—it can be recycled from scrap without losing any of its properties. As a matter of fact, 60% of all produced zinc is still in use. Moreover, zinc’s 45% end-of-life recycling rate means that almost half of all the zinc produced is recycled after final-usage.

Zinc’s contribution to the circular economy will help minimize waste and improve resource sustainability as our material needs grow.

Zinc: Strengthening the Path to a Sustainable Future

The uses of zinc today are widespread and make an enormous impact on almost every aspect of our modern lives. Just as our present world could not function without zinc, so will our future.

As we transition to a cleaner world, zinc will continue strengthening, improving, and supporting the modern economy.

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An Introduction to MSCI ESG Indexes

With an extensive suite of ESG indexes on offer, MSCI aims to support investors as they build a more personalized and resilient portfolio.

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An Introduction to MSCI ESG Indexes

There are various portfolio objectives within the realm of sustainable investing.

For example, some investors may want to build a portfolio that reflects their personal values. Others may see environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria as a tool for improving long-term returns, or as a way to create positive impact. A combination of all three of these motivations is also possible.

To support investors as they embark on their sustainable journey, our sponsor, MSCI, offers over 1,500 purpose-built ESG indexes. In this infographic, we’ll take a holistic view at what these indexes are designed to achieve.

An Extensive Suite of ESG & Climate Indexes

Below, we’ll summarize the four overarching objectives that MSCI’s ESG & climate indexes are designed to support.

Objective 1: Integrate a broad set of ESG issues

Investors with this objective believe that incorporating ESG criteria can improve their long-term risk-adjusted returns.

The MSCI ESG Leaders indexes are designed to support these investors by targeting companies that have the highest ESG-rated performance from each sector of the parent index.

For those who do not wish to deviate from the parent index, the MSCI ESG Universal indexes may be better suited. This family of indexes will adjust weights according to ESG performance to maintain the broadest possible universe.

Objective 2: Generate social or environmental benefits

A common challenge that impact investors face is measuring their non-financial results.

Consider an asset owner who wishes to support gender diversity through their portfolios. In order to gauge their success, they would need to regularly filter the entire investment universe for updates regarding corporate diversity and related initiatives.

In this scenario, linking their portfolios to an MSCI Women’s Leadership Index would negate much of this groundwork. Relative to a parent index, these indexes aim to include companies which lead their respective countries in terms of female representation.

Objective 3: Exclude controversial activities

Many institutional investors have mandates that require them to avoid certain sectors or industries. For example, approximately $14.6 trillion in institutional capital is in the process of divesting from fossil fuels.

To support these efforts, MSCI offers indexes that either:

  • Exclude individual sectors such as fossil fuels, tobacco, or weapons;
  • Exclude companies from a combination of these sectors; or
  • Exclude companies that are not compatible with certain religious values.

Objective 4: Identify climate risks and opportunities

Climate change poses a number of wide-reaching risks and opportunities for investors, making it difficult to tailor a portfolio accordingly.

With MSCI’s climate indexes, asset owners gain the tools they need to build a more resilient portfolio. The MSCI Climate Change indexes, for example, reduce exposure to stranded assets, increase exposure to solution providers, and target a minimum 30% reduction in emissions.

An Index for Every Objective

Regardless of your motivation for pursuing sustainable investment, the need for an appropriate benchmark is something that everyone shares.

With an extensive suite of ESG indexes designed specifically for sustainability and climate change, MSCI aims to support asset owners as they build a more unique and personalized portfolio.

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Tracked: The U.S. Utilities ESG Report Card

This graphic acts as an ESG report card that tracks the ESG metrics reported by different utilities in the U.S.—what gets left out?

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NPUC Utilities ESG Report Card Share

Tracked: The U.S. Utilities ESG Report Card

As emissions reductions and sustainable practices become more important for electrical utilities, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting is coming under increased scrutiny.

Once seen as optional by most companies, ESG reports and sustainability plans have become commonplace in the power industry. In addition to reporting what’s needed by regulatory state laws, many utilities utilize reporting frameworks like the Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) ESG Initiative or the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Standards.

But inconsistent regulations, mixed definitions, and perceived importance levels have led some utilities to report significantly more environmental metrics than others.

How do U.S. utilities’ ESG reports stack up? This infographic from the National Public Utilities Council tracks the ESG metrics reported by 50 different U.S. based investor-owned utilities (IOUs).

What’s Consistent Across ESG Reports

To complete the assessment of U.S. utilities, ESG reports, sustainability plans, and company websites were examined. A metric was considered tracked if it had concrete numbers provided, so vague wording or non-detailed projections weren’t included.

Of the 50 IOU parent companies analyzed, 46 have headquarters in the U.S. while four are foreign-owned, but all are regulated by the states in which they operate.

For a few of the most agreed-upon and regulated measures, U.S. utilities tracked them almost across the board. These included direct scope 1 emissions from generated electricity, the utility’s current fuel mix, and water and waste treatment.

Another commonly reported metric was scope 2 emissions, which include electricity emissions purchased by the utility companies for company consumption. However, a majority of the reporting utilities labeled all purchased electricity emissions as scope 2, even though purchased electricity for downstream consumers are traditionally considered scope 3 or value-chain emissions:

  • Scope 1: Direct (owned) emissions.
  • Scope 2: Indirect electricity emissions from internal electricity consumption. Includes purchased power for internal company usage (heat, electrical).
  • Scope 3: Indirect value-chain emissions, including purchased goods/services (including electricity for non-internal use), business travel, and waste.

ESG Inconsistencies, Confusion, and Unimportance

Even putting aside mixed definitions and labeling, there were many inconsistencies and question marks arising from utility ESG reports.

For example, some utilities reported scope 3 emissions as business travel only, without including other value chain emissions. Others included future energy mixes that weren’t separated by fuel and instead grouped into “renewable” and “non-renewable.”

The biggest discrepancies, however, were between what each utility is required to report, as well as what they choose to. That means that metrics like internal energy consumption didn’t need to be reported by the vast majority.

Likewise, some companies didn’t need to report waste generation or emissions because of “minimal hazardous waste generation” that fell under a certain threshold. Other metrics like internal vehicle electrification were only checked if the company decided to make a detailed commitment and unveil its plans.

As pressure for the electricity sector to decarbonize continues to increase at the federal level, however, many of these inconsistencies are roadblocks to clear and direct measurements and reduction strategies.

National Public Utilities Council is the go-to resource for all things decarbonization in the utilities industry. Learn more.

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