You are here

Two major sustainable development challenges: raw materials and energy

News International-French

18 Apr 2011

Our society has been living under a sword of Damocles for a number of years now, with two impending dangers for the 21st century. One is climate change, with increased global warming due in large part to our industrial activity. The other, which is discussed in the article below, is the dwindling of our planet’s non-renewable fossil fuel energy and mineral resources that are available to us.

(Published on May 2008 – JEC Magazine #40)




An assessment of the situation indicates that there is cause for concern in the soaring prices of natural mineral and other energy resources and, more recently, of food resources, and also in the increasingly frequent supply pressures. While these are all due to various reasons, the effects are cumulative. One example is when poor wheat and corn crop yields in some countries, a strong demand for biofuels, and the increase in food consumption in emerging countries all converge. The resulting conflict in crop utilization could intensify in the coming years. Another example is oil, where production and transport capacities that are inadequate – or at least close to saturation – are unable to meet global demand as emerging countries join the ranks of energy consumers. The metal sector is also straining to meet soaring demand because of persistent mining undercapacity and inadequate sources of recycled metals (the principal metals remain “locked up” in long-lived products).


All of these factors form a context around the surge in demand from emerging countries, which is complicated further by structural issues like infrastructure, supply chain, and access to deposits, and by circumstantial issues like climatic problems/events. Note that the issues could very well become structural. Fewer and fewer deposits are being discovered, and this is cause for concern even though high prices are making it possible to mine more mediocre deposits. Furthermore, the speculation around commodity prices and stocks is making things worse. The more specific issue of first-generation biofuels like starch and oils confronts humanity with a societal choice between eating, or using means of transport![1] Because of its harmful effects on the environment (in particular deforestation), the intensive farming involved also is of concern to us.



Starting from the different types of resources, we can describe the constituent elements of the ore economy, including the often confused notions of resources and reserves (Table 1) and the factors that are specific to the industry, notably the fact that it takes 10 to 15 years to get from the discovery of a raw-material deposit to launching production.


Tab.1: Types of resource
Resources Nonexhaustible Exhaustible
Renewable Stochastic
sources: sun,
wind, waves,
Reservoirs: air
(O2, CO2),
oceans (water)
freshwater ponds,
aquifers, fertile soil
Nonrenewable Recyclable:
minerals, land
fossil fuels
(oil, gas, coal,


Resources refer to all known or estimated available amounts of a given substance, independent of economical considerations. Reserves refer to delimited concentrations of a given substance, i.e. deposits, that by their quantity (tonnage) and quality (grade) can be exploited profitably for industrial use:

  • selecting fillers (particle size)
  • selecting and/or optimizing the architecture of the fibrous reinforcement
  • defining the best injection strategy.


For most common metals, the known or estimated resources are abundant, while the reserves, i.e. the portion of resources that is economically exploitable, are by definition highly variable and often fall short of matching strong demand. For example, as seen in Table 2, for more than 50 years, at the annual production rate for the year under consideration, the known global reserves for the main metals have been equivalent to several hundred years for iron and aluminium and up to sixty years for copper and zinc. This indicates that there is no risk of depletion over the medium term, even though annual production rates have considerably increased (tenfold for Al and sixfold for Fe and Cu).


For the non-renewable but recyclable metal resources, the availability may not be infinite, but it generally extends beyond the long-term forecasts. The real issues for these industries are to adapt flows and capacities to demand, to control environmental and social impacts (sharing the mining benefits), to make the energy available, and to obtain access to deposits (geopolitical and NIMBY[2] issues).


Tab. 2: Number of years of reserve - Global production in Mt
Sources: USGS
Years 1955 1970 1985 2000 2005
  Number of years of reserves (Global production Mt)
Al 90
150 260 270
Fe 50
330 250 300
Cu 45
48 65 50
Zn 28 20 43 54
In         12
  Price index for metals (base 1 in 2000)
  2,5 2 1,2 1 2


For non-renewable, non-recoverable resources (fossil fuels), the additional challenge is to manage these finite resources prudently, and to replace them with new energy sources, preferably renewable ones (Figure 1). It would also be advisable to give priority to non-destructive uses (materials). The specific case of FRP composites is a good example. The global market for composite materials amounts to about 8 million metric tons (MT), 40% of which consists of the reinforcements (about 90% being glass fibre), and 60% of which consists of resins. Components include:

  • glass fibre, of mineral origin (SiO2, Al2O3 and different oxides),
  • synthetic fibres of petrochemical origin: for example, polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor for carbon fibres or polyterephthalamide polymer for aramid fibres, to mention only two of the most important ones,
  • natural fibres,
  • thermoset resins like polyester, epoxy, and phenolics,
  • thermoplastic resins like polyamide, polyolefins, polyester, PPS, and PEEK.



Except where natural and glass fibres are concerned, composite materials are linked to non-renewable resources and the petrochemical industry. Only a small part of the composite industry’s needs can be met by renewable biomaterial solutions. Recycling solutions exist and others are being developed. Some composites are easier to recycle than others. The composite industry needs to make even more efforts to reach the regulatory recycling objectives .


Demand driven by the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China)

The large emerging countries have a great need of raw materials, and this has steadily pumped up demand for them since 2003. Double-digit growth is sustained by the intense interactivity of the large economic development markets, mingling infrastructure, housing, industrial equipment and increasing consumption on the part of growing numbers of nouveaux riches (Diagram borrowed from C. Hocquard, 2004).Supply pressure is often made worse by speculation, triggering nationalistic reactions (Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Khazakhstan, etc.) in oil matters, especially since the creation of OPEC in 1973, and for raw materials on a worldwide basis. And then there is the consolidation of the sector’s large companies and an increasing bipolarization among players, facing off new risk-capitalfinanced companies and the ultrapowerful multinational companies, the only ones capable of financing megaprojects worth billions of dollars. Another phenomenon is integration:

  • upstream: producers of semi-finished products, or even processors (Arcelor- Mittal, for example) take up mining in order to secur 90% of their raw-materials supply (iron ore and coal);
  • downstream: mining or oil operators (Rio Tinto’s buyout of Alcan, petrochemical company Sabic’s buyout of GE Plastics).


Given this hyper-activity, Europe appears regrettably weak and non-reactive: it hardly seems to care about its raw materials supply, and seems incapable of securing its own stocks of secondary materials. The world appears to be committed to a raw-materials and energy “super-cycle” that will certainly last, given the prospect of continuing development of the BRIC countries and of population growth – but will it be sustainable ?




A critical assessment of the solutions suggests several different possibilities:

  • Increasing the supply of mineral raw materials would involve improving extraction processes such as grinding, hydrometallurgy, or in situ mining; stepping up exploration; and launching more production.
    The high prices are a positive factor, to be sure, but there are also some negative ones – for example, mining lower grades comes at a higher energy and environmental cost, and it is very difficult to compress the time from exploration to production launch (5 to 15 years).


Recycling is clearly a necessity, but we cannot rely only on this solution, considering the high scrap rate and the lifetime of the applications that consume the most materials, i.e. in building & construction, transport and energy. The ferrous and nonferrous metals that recycle best contribute only 50% (iron) to 60% (lead, for example, which has a 90%+ recycle rate) to the global supply pool. The issue is to optimize recovery and recycling rates and, especially, to improve the quality of secondary materials.


This could be promoted through an approach that considers recycling as the “mining” of a deposit of secondary materials and not just as the economic upgrading of final waste.


Agro-resources: a blind alley?

The principal purpose of agro-resources is still food for humans and animals. Global production is nowhere near being able to replace raw materials of petrochemical origin with biopolymers – out of the total 200 million MT of plastics, only 300,000 T are biopolymers. It would be advisable to avoid utilizations that conflict with food and agricultural objectives, and focus instead on applications that use non-alimentary biomass materials for technological niches such as 1) fibres like cellulose, flax, and hemp, or 2) certain natural polymers (notably polylactic acid, or PLA, which is extracted from corn starch) that can contribute specific properties like biodegradability, but for which extensive utilization is still limited by cost (two or three times more than petrochemical polymers) or inconsistent quality, or lack of availability.Where first-generation biofuels like ethanol or oils are concerned, the problem of agricultural land quickly crops up – at worst, involving more or less intense deforestation in tropical countries; at best, taking land away from food crops. For example, to reach its 2010 objective of an energy mix including 7% biofuels (or 3.6 Metric tons of oil equivalent), France will need 15% (2.5 Million hectares) of its 18.4 Mha of cultivable surface. Channels for secondgeneration biofuels based on cellulose recovered from waste will not be operational at a significant industrial scale before another decade.


The “dematerialization” illusion

This term can be taken in two ways. One fits into the ecodesign approach and advocates decreasing the share of raw materials in products, for example using miniaturization; certain products like electronics (i.e. cellphones) come with the risk of having highly scattered metals in waste stocks that hinder recycling.


Another way to consider dematerialization is controlling the life cycle of a product by selling, not the product itself, but the use of it (long-term rental). The renter remains solely responsible for the product at end of life, and can choose to overhaul or recycle it. This solution is very appealing, for relatively short-lived consumer products that are in demand everywhere, like cars, sports equipment, photocopiers, and the like. It can give access to high performance, but is no match for cheap throwaway products.


Tab.3: Estimating the recycling share in the production of principal metals (2003)
Metal Annual
production (kT)
Recycled (kT) Recycled
Steel 960,000 480,000 480,000 50% Long lifetime
Alumium 25,000 15,000 10,000 40% Long lifetime 550 Mt
in products
Copper 15,000 12,000 3,000 20% Long lifetime
Zinc 9,000 6,300 2,700 30%  
Lead 6,000 2,400 3,600 60% Batteries
Nickel 1,000 500 500 50%  
Magnesium 300 240 60 20%  
Tin 250 225 25 10% Highly scattered
Titanium 45 22,5 22,5 50% New scrap



Ecodesign based on life-cycle analysis (LCA) is a major issue. The large industries that manufacture semi-finished products like aluminium and iron need to use integration both upstream (the mines) and downstream (recycling). Over the medium term, supply issues for raw materials and energy are more a question of infrastructure than of shortage, with the exception of a few technological channels. In the rapidly changing world we live in, where crises can be sudden and severe, only economic intelligence will give manufacturers and specifiers the means for short-/medium- /long-term planning.



[1] In fact, although the issue of competition between “green” fuels and agricultural foodstuffs does apply to firstgeneration biofuels from corn, beets, sugar cane, palm or canola oil, etc., it won’t apply to second-generation biofuels from biomass waste. For the moment, biomass waste is not being used to a very large extent, although it is hoped that production facilities will be in place by 2010-2015 (source IFP).

[2] NIMBY: “Not In My Back Yard” is the slogan of groups who oppose new infrastructure in their areas for things like mines, railway tracks or industrial plants.