France’s ambitious plan to dispose of strategic metals

When presenting the objectives of his France 2030 plan, Emmanuel Macron emphasized the need to innovate, in particular to decarbonize French industry with, as a corollary to this ambition, the need to have a chain of supply of metals and rare earths (mineral materials with unique properties), which is less dependent on imports to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles, future mini-nuclear reactors but also solar panels and wind turbines. These minerals are also essential for lesser-known and equally innovative industrial applications, such as this anti-theft marking made from rare earths by the Breton company Olnica.

Pioneering economic players but little support

The track mentioned for securing these supplies is that of recycling metals. However, if the sector is present, it must still gain momentum to achieve the objectives set by Emmanuel Macron. In 2019, in France, 1.9 million tonnes of non-ferrous metals (aluminum, copper, zinc, etc.) were recycled. In 2020, this volume fell to 1.69 million tonnes, due to the Covid-19 crisis which forced many companies to suspend the activity of their ovens. If we take all of all metal waste (including scrap metal), in 2020, 11.2 million tonnes were recycled, a decrease of 9% compared to 2019, according to figures from Federec.

Paradoxically, professionals in the sector fear the will of the European Commission to restrict exports, particularly scrap, in the name of resource conservation and respect for social and environmental rights in importing countries, particularly in Turkey and Egypt. Indeed, keeping this offer would lower prices, all European recycling capacities are not sufficient to absorb the entire volume. This illustrates the need to develop new capacities, in particular by starting to support the many existing SMEs working in this segment.

Support that was not always present: Terra Nova, a pioneering recycling company, had positioned itself in 2006 on the recycling of materials (palladium, silver, copper, tin or tantalum, etc.) contained in used electronic cards. . Despite the development of multiple innovative techniques still used today (hydrometallurgy, pyrolysis), the company still needed an average of 1,000 kilos of electronic waste to obtain 7 to 100 grams. Investments were huge at the time, public support limited, while the prices of non-ferrous metals plummeted. The company will be bought in 2013 at the helm of the commercial court by an American mining player.

Respond to the triptych of price competitiveness, yield and purity

This French story shows that if certain basic materials such as copper or precious materials such as gold or silver can be recycled more or less easily, it is not the same for rare earths or other small metals including collection, sorting and recovery can be much more expensive than purchasing from primary producers. As a result, the recycling rate rarely exceeds 15%.

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Another pitfall remains: these recycled critical metals (or so-called “secondary”) must traditionally be mixed with raw ores to achieve a satisfactory quality. It is on this condition that they are then resold and exploited by a third party customer. The ratio is generally 2/3 of recycled metals for 1/3 from a primary extraction. This “mix”, which still requires an external supply, could therefore limit the French strategy geared towards recycling. But a young Norman company seems to serve as an example to follow in order to gain sovereignty.

WeeeCycling prides itself on being the only refiner in the world to work only from waste. It therefore offers these strategic metals (rhodium, ruthenium, cobalt or lithium) for resale to end customers without adding raw ore. In short, the company works in a circular circuit from its waste suppliers, bypassing the mines and primary refiners. And all this at the same level of purity and at the same price as those extracted from the subsoil.

Because the price competitiveness, the yield and the purity of the recycled metals constitute the sinews of war to convert the recycling test. Research and innovation must make it possible to improve the recovery rate (in volume and quality) at the best price, as Emmanuel Macron pointed out.

A level of purity of 98%

The outlets for this move upmarket concern, for example, batteries for electric cars. Thus, the substitution of an LFP battery (lithium, iron, phosphate) for the NCA battery (nickel, cobalt, aluminum) requires recycling more lithium than nickel, the recycling cost of which is now much lower than that lithium.

And in these segments, some French companies are already in working order, particularly in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, where Carester and Mecaware are located. The first is more specialized on rare earths, the second more specifically on critical metals. Both are still in the R&D phase but have just validated substantial funding which should soon lead them towards industrialization.

Mecaware recovers the CO2 present in the fumes already released by certain factories, by mixing it with organic compounds capable of associating with different metals contained in the grindings of used batteries, thus making it possible to selectively extract the various metals deemed critical . These strategic raw materials are then put back on the market with a purity level of over 98%. The plant, scheduled for 2024 (and funding of 50 million euros), will be able to recycle 5,000 tonnes of critical materials (lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and lanthanum).

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As for Carester, it is more particularly interested in the recycling of permanent magnets, used in particular for the motors of electric mobility vehicles. They are made from rare earths, in particular neodymium and prazeodymium. The company has developed a process for separating these soils, via a process involving different stages of settling through the use of solvents making it possible to separate the soils two by two. A plant, scheduled for the third quarter of 2022, involving funding of 57 million euros, should be able to produce 320 tons of rare earths from 1,000 tons of magnets. It will be able to count on an allocation of 15 million euros, resulting from the recovery plan.

Thinking after strategic metals

But in his strategy, Emmanuel Macron also mentioned the search for products “substitutable” via breakthrough innovations. In short, it is also a question of thinking of alternatives to strategic metals and rare earths to produce the components essential to the environmental transition and to the industry of tomorrow.

And French nuggets are already in the ranks. In Lille, for example, the startup Hive Electric is developing batteries for electric vehicles based on metal-Ion, a more common metal and above all easier to recycle. This prototype does not integrate strategic metals. Developed with an American vehicle manufacturer, it allows you to swap (replace) the battery in … two minutes for a range of 500 kilometers. But for lack of financial means to develop its production capacities, and while its expertise is already in demand by companies around the world, the startup could relocate its activity to the United States.

Relaunch mining, a value-added activity

In addition to recycling, there is primary production, that is, the extraction of these minerals from the subsoil. Apart from Eramet, which operates nickel deposits in New Caledonia – with the risk that the Pacific Island will become independent following the referendum scheduled to be held on December 12 -, but also manganese in Gabon and soon lithium in Argentina, the mining sector remains the poor relation of French industry. However, the issue is not only sovereignty and strategy, it also makes it possible to create value-added jobs in industry.

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If the development of a mining sector in Europe is an option, it frequently comes up against the challenge of environmental NGOs and citizens on behalf of NIMBY (not in my garden) or more simply to access to the resource. In Central Brittany, between 2013 and 2018, several mining prospecting projects emerged. But the strong collective mobilization, associating citizens, associations and local and regional authorities had made it possible to have the State definitively cancel, in April 2019, the last mining permits granted to the Australian group Variscan Mines in Loc-Envel, Merléac and Silfiac. But that could change.

“I do not see why we would be unable to do it in France. Of course, it will cost more and it will not cover all European needs. But beyond communication and social acceptance, the priority is to make a statement of our resources in Europe.Remember that the last exploration campaign of BRGM dates back to the 1970s “, says Raphaël Danino-Perraud, associate researcher at the Orléans Economics Laboratory.

In France, there has never been a modern exploration campaign. This is why such an operation should see the light of day in the coming months in the center of France, more precisely in the Massif Central.

Explore the deep seabed

In addition, Emmanuel Macron also mentioned the exploration of the deep seabed to assess their mineral composition. Usually located below 5,000 meters, there are polymetallic nodules that contain a number of strategic metals for the energy transition such as nickel, manganese or cobalt. But, many experts stress that this option is not the priority at this stage.

It remains to be seen whether this series of presidential announcements can lead to an acceleration in the development of the production of these strategic metals. Volunteer, Emmanuel Macron repeated it throughout his speech, this France 2030 plan must also be articulated with the projects of other member countries of Europe. This is a challenge in view of the changeover to be made in just a few years to complete such a transition.