Innovation in raw materials: the foundation of a truly green, circular economy


Dr. Inge Maes

Chair of the Lead (Pb) REACH Consortium and Sustainability Director at Aurubis Beerse

part of Aurubis Group

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Innovation in raw materials: the foundation of a truly green, circular economy

As green changemakers gather for EU Raw Materials Week, we should recognise the established and innovative value chains paving the way to a low carbon future.

EU Raw Materials Week takes place this week among growing concerns around the reliable and unhindered access to raw materials around the world. Access to these is an essential factor for the successful decarbonisation of society as demand for clean technologies increases exponentially.

In fact, the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) recent report, The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions states that supply and investment plans for many critical minerals fall well short of what is needed to support an accelerated deployment of clean technologies. In particular, lead is expected to see an 18% increase in production demand while the global lead battery market is expected to grow from 415GWh to 490 GWh by 2030. As part of the multimetal expertise of Aurubis’ smelter network, we’re proud to provide this essential metal for applications such as electric vehicle batteries and support a strategically autonomous industry. Every year, our site in Beerse, Belgium, processes around 250,000 tons of multi-metal scrap into non-ferrous metals and other materials – including lead which is used to make new lead batteries. Each new lead battery made in the EU contains around 80% recycled materials as part of a closed-loop process, with almost every used lead battery collected and recycled at end of life – an exemplar of circular economy success.

By ensuring industrial supply chains have secure access to sustainable raw materials, we are ensuring Europe’s autonomy and that the increased demand for decarbonisation is met. Outside of battery metals, the EU’s established circular economy also provides raw materials across a breadth of clean technologies which are irreplaceable in solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and energy-efficient lighting.

It is lead’s infinite recyclability without loss of performance that pushes its circular economy credentials into the realm of maximum valorisation – making sure we are extracting as much value as possible from the available raw materials, while also reducing amounts of waste materials. The use of lead alloys supports better engineering and machineability and makes it easier to reclaim and recycle the metals at a later date, helping to minimise waste and to return value to the product cycle for as long as possible. Europe’s home-grown metals recycling industry is in fact one of the most advanced and efficient in the world, with lead in particular playing an essential part in the recovery and recycling of other critical metals including gold, and even platinum from electronics waste and catalytic converters.

To maintain these high value industries while meeting the growing demands of global decarbonisation, industrial growth is needed underpinned by investment. In fact, one report estimates that $1 trillion needs to be invested globally over the next 15 years, just in the raw materials alone that are essential to our energy transition. This mindset enabled a world’s first in recycling at Metallo in 2018 – the installation of the then-unique plasma oven was a ground-breaking technology, tackling the issue of low-grade scrap and industrial by-products from metals processing by converting it to high grade metals and minerals. The plasma oven runs on electricity and has potential to run on green energy minimising the impact of the process on the environment while doing its day job of extracting the raw materials needed for it.

Process innovation investments are one way the EU metals industry is committing to valorising the circular economy as much as possible. The ASPA process – Advanced Sludge Processing by Aurubis (ASPA) – is another such example. It will process anode sludge, a valuable intermediate product from electrolytic copper refining and enable faster extraction of precious metals and tin. We are investing €27 million in this project, with the ASPA set to be commissioned in early 2024. Innovative processing such as this from multi-metal scrap can produce more raw materials essential to the clean energy transition, all from re-useable resources.

Embracing circular economy principles provides a stable supply of many clean energy raw materials; innovating the processes will ensure we are commercialising materials that are produced, used and re-used in the EU. Protecting the EU’s strategic autonomy while increasing its competitiveness, the innovative EU raw materials sector is central to accelerating Europe’s green transition.

Read more for how the lead industry is fighting the critical metal shortfall.

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