GTK Research: The Currently Known Global Mineral Reserves Will Not Be Sufficient to Supply Enough Metals to Manufacture the Planned Non-fossil Fuel Industrial Systems

The renewable power sources like wind and solar, require extensive mineral resources to manufacture the required infrastructure for fossil-free energy. The research published by Geological Survey of Finland GTK developed a bottom-up calculation to determine what would be required to fully replace the existing fossil fuel supported global system. The results indicate that if we want to genuinely transition away from fossil fuels accordingly to the current plan, mining of minerals and using recycled minerals and metals from industrial waste streams in new ways will have to increase greatly.

The global strategic decision adopted by most nations to phase out fossil fuels systems and replace them with renewable energy generation systems is largely driven by CO2 emissions and associated climate change.  

The research by Associate Research Professor Simon Michaux from the Geological Survey of Finland GTK has approached this critical topic from a totally different perspective. While the usual approach to studying the substitution of fossil fuels examines the carbon pollution and the climate change mitigation aspect, his research examined how many electric vehicles, H-cells, biofuels, solar panels, hydro, biomass to waste, wind turbines and extra nuclear power capacity would be needed to completely phase out fossil fuels from the existing energy system.  

Wake-up Call – Minerals Have a Critical Role

During the research it was noted that previous studies have significantly underestimated the number of vehicles to be replaced and supported with alternative solutions like electric vehicles which in turn produces a lower estimate of the size of the required electrical power grid.   

The new estimation of the required number of electric vehicles (EV) including different vehicle class makes it clear that there are not enough minerals in the currently reported global reserves to build even one generation of batteries for all electric vehicles and stationary power storage, in the global industrial ecosystem as it is today.  

The research also shows that the planned non-fossil solution will require more energy than ever consumed before while at the same time the future non-fossil fuel energy system may well be smaller in capacity than the current fossil fuel supported energy system. This is a consequence of non-fossil fuel systems having a lower Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) ratio compared to fossil fuel systems using oil, gas, or coal as a feedstock. 

The required stationary power storage to buffer wind and solar power systems has also been significantly underestimated in past studies, which results in an inappropriately low estimate of the needed volume of batteries. This together with the smaller capacity to deliver power of non-fossil fuel energy system means that the number of required new power stations is much bigger than estimated earlier.   

The latest IPCC Report points out that emission reduction measures must be significantly accelerated over the next decade in particular. We need decisive actions to develop a diverse set of solutions and intensify the long term sustainable material sourcing for the industrial ecosystem energy transition. How to do this effectively and with a minimum net degradation of environmental biodiversity is the question,” says Saku Vuori, Director of Science and Innovations at GTK. 

Time to Re-visit Our Plan for the Future

As a conclusion, the report suggests that the World needs a new plan and decisive actions to diversify sustainable material sourcing for not being dependent on only currently known mineral reserves. Key elements include developing new ways to utilize minerals, metals and materials of our industrial waste and to promote manufacture of easily recyclable products. Exploration for new mineral deposits, feasibility studies, and pilot scale tests of existing known deposits will be needed on an unprecedented scale, all over the world.

“It’s time to start the discussion about how to produce enough of these substitute non-fossil systems to perform the same tasks as currently, on a global scale. Parallel solutions of different kinds are needed, where innovation and efficiency measures of all kinds are developed, because all existing proposed solutions have practical limitations in the scale-up. Without a reliable energy source with a useful ERoEI ratio that is available to most of the human population, plans for future development will have to let go of many current assumptions relating to maintaining existing consumption patterns, and technology complexity. Therefore, the restructuring of society and the industrial ecosystem to consume less and establish a new improved understanding of interdependence between raw materials and energy might be needed,” says Simon Michaux. 

Time to Re-evaluate Our Thinking

We need to discuss questions like: Is it sustainable to focus exclusively on lithium-ion battery chemistry? Are there alternative chemistries and what raw materials might they require? How can we supply the needed materials for the energy transition in most sustainable way at a systemic level? Can we fully evaluate how the transition away from fossil raw materials might impact our global food system? Can the plastics industry be resourced with bioplastics, and if so, how much biomass can be harvested sustainably?  If oil is to be no longer used to produce rubber, how will we manufacture, for example, car tires? 

“On the positive side, our society has never had such strong technological capability or scientific understanding to handle complex challenges. This report emphasizes the reality of our net position of vast material needs. It is important to share this understanding to our politicians, thought leaders and captains of industry. Now we should all get to work,” concludes Simon Michaux. 

More information about the reasons behind these questions, and the full report with the key findings and the related graphics are available at It’s Time to Wake Up | GTK

For Further Information 

Simon P. Michaux, Associate Research Professor
Tel. +358 29 503 2158  

Saku Vuori, Director, Science and Innovations
Tel. +359 29 503 2459

Geological Survey of Finland: Solutions to accelerate the transition to a sustainable, carbon-neutral world

The Geological Survey of Finland (GTK) produces impartial and objective research data and services in support of decision-making in industry, academia, and wider society to accelerate the transition to a sustainable, carbon-neutral world. GTK employs more than 400 experts specializing in the mineral economy, circular economy, solutions related to energy, water and the environment, as well as digital solutions. GTK is a research institution governed by the Finnish Ministry of Employment and the Economy, operating in Finland and globally.