Not so Rare: The Race for Metals to Power the Green Energy Revolution


If you are a car nut, “VOLT” will make you think of the name of General Motors’ Chevrolet hybrid that arrived a decade ago and has already been killed off by its parent.  Volt Rush in this case is the book by a former Financial Times writer, Henry Sanderson, and deals with what makes the VOLT go: battery power. But the book takes on much more than battery power, electric and hybrid vehicles.

Henry Sanderson takes the reader through the intricacies of the world-wide mining rush for lithium and the many critical metals that are in all batteries. This is the story of the energy the world uses, the energy the world needs if it is to accomplish the goals of green economies, and the reduction if not the elimination of greenhouse gases.

The author grew up in Hong Kong, covered mining for the Financial Times for seven years, lived in China, and now has taken his expertise to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence in London where he analyzes the relationships of lithium and precious metals on the battery supply chain worldwide. The result is a fascinating book.

Sanderson has crafted a broad and deep dive into an industry that has gone from niche production to an insatiable demand for riches from the earth to satisfy the energy needs that will drive future generations of transport.

The trip takes the reader to the Congo, a treasure-trove of all minerals and a country long exploited cruelly by Belgium and its royal family. Cruel exploitation hasn’t changed, only  those doing the dirty work.

From the Congo to the Andes and on to the Australian continent, this is also a geopolitical story of giant private and national interests. The world has discovered the ubiquity of lithium and the desperate need for more battery production.

The book explains that lithium may be considered precious but it is far from rare. The need for lithium as a key ingredient in batteries sparked a worldwide rush to exploration that has resulted in exponential growth of reserves. Chile’s reserves (9.3 million metric tons) and Australia dominate. China has a modest 2-million-ton metric reserve so far while the US has less than half of what China has. Sanderson documents China’s rapacious quest to explore worldwide where she can negotiate mining concessions and buy out existing companies.

Most of us know lithium as the essential ingredient for the batteries that drive almost everything we use. But Volt Rush introduces the reader to much more. Elon Musk, in many ways the man who jump-started the growth of electric vehicles, is quoted: “We have to scale battery production to crazy levels that people can’t even fathom today.”

That scale means not only the mega factories that Musk and others continue to build to meet battery production demand, but it means a level of competition to control resources that the world has never seen. At the same time Volt Rush is the story of the impact of battery power on the green revolution. It takes lots of power to extract the minerals the world needs to make the batteries that will permit us to wean ourselves from the oil and gas that still dominate transport and industry.

The growth in electric vehicles is an illustration of how this still new form of propulsion has exploded. In 2010 electric vehicle production worldwide was close to zero. In 2020 the world produced 10.2 million electric and hybrid vehicles, more than half of them in China. But that represented only 4.6 percent of passenger car sales last year.

Not surprisingly China is at the heart of many chapters in Volt Rush. UBS and HSBC banks estimate that three out of five new cars sold in China will be electric and/or hybrid by 2030. A total of 27 million cars and trucks were produced in China last year. The US produced about 10 million cars and trucks in 2022.

China has 37 percent of the world’s rare earth mineral reserves. But China controls about 90 percent of the trade in rare earth minerals. The imbalance gets worse.

Volt Rush is more than the statistical picture of the mining, the minerals and the production revolution brought on by the portable power in your pocket, the car you will soon drive, and the house you live in when the power goes out. Volt Rush is the story of the globalization of needs brought on by changes that rival the industrial revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a wake-up call to the national challenges that all countries face in  managing their own and the world’s resources.

Peter Herford
Peter Herford
The Seattle-based author has many years of experience in national broadcast news, including years teaching journalism in mainland China.


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