How can international geoscience help meet the increasing global demand for natural resources, driven by the energy transition to net zero, while reducing the environmental and social impacts?
Geoscience underpins the sustainable supply of raw materials to achieve net zero, economic prosperity and the supply of food and water to the growing global population. The aim of this challenge is to develop data and good practice that will support decision making for this supply.
Decision making for resource use requires understanding of the complex interactions between competing land uses, priorities and impacts. There is a critical need to obtain appropriate data and develop practices and strategies to address this challenge. For example, the trade-off between mineral, energy or water resource development versus the negative impact on environmental and human health requires research to inform decision making, including mitigation strategies to reduce potential harm or unsustainable practices. Our research will address this over three topics:
- sustainable raw materials
- energy transition to net zero
- groundwater resources in sub-Saharan Africa
The supply of naturally occurring minerals underpins:
- electrification of heating and transport
- battery energy storage
- generating renewable energy needed for net zero
Rapidly growing economies have an increased demand for significant volumes of raw materials for the construction of residential housing and industrial production and infrastructure. Rapid development often outpaces the regulatory capacity of governments to plan, monitor and manage the exploration and exploitation of resources. This can lead to informal or unmanaged primary mineral extraction or secondary waste operations with corresponding negative social, environmental and economic consequences.
BGS will use its expertise in global raw material and supply chain circular economy research to focus on three areas:
- critical and battery raw materials
- sand mining
- mineral waste
Critical and battery raw materials
Building on our existing research collaborations in Bolivia and Zambia, we will study the effects of lithium extraction from brines in South America (the so-called ‘lithium triangle’ of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile) and the exploration for battery raw material resources, such as graphite, in Africa. We will use multiple exploration datasets to create GIS-based maps showing critical raw material potential, and laboratory assessment methods to assess resource potential.
We will evaluate security of supply assessments, and life cycle analysis will be conducted to assess the mass balance and circular economy potential of material flows across supply chains, including:
- end of life (recycling and waste disposal)
These will identify the positive effects associated with the resurgence in global mining and the potential negative effects on the environment, society and governance.
Extensive, uncontrolled mining of sand, which is an essential construction raw material, is a significant global problem. Rapid urban development in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and other cities in South-east Asia, is accelerating unsustainable and illegal mining of sand from active water courses. This results in erosion, damage to infrastructure, increased flooding risk and pollution.
With our Malaysian partners (Institute of Quarrying Malaysia and Department of Mineral and Geoscience Malaysia), we will use earth-observation data to quantify the amount of sand consumed in Greater Kuala Lumpur as a proxy to determine the mass balance of sand through its lifecycle, focusing on extraction from the catchments of the Langat and Selangor rivers. This data will inform practice guidance for resource management. We will then apply this knowledge to an African sand mining setting associated with urban development in Nairobi, Kenya, with our partners there (University of Nairobi and the Geological Survey of Kenya).
The outputs of this project will:
- inform planners and policymakers of the full value chain for construction materials for spatial planning decisions
- identify potential supply shortfalls
- enable more sustainable sourcing
- inform the transition to a circular economy
Mineral waste in the form of tailings (the materials left over after the process of separating the valuable fraction from the uneconomic fraction of an ore) presents major contamination and pollution issues, as well as the potential for catastrophic dam collapse. It also contains considerable quantities of unrecovered metals that could help to meet the global demand for resources.
Regulation and monitoring of mineral waste by local and national agencies requires a collaborative approach, including community engagement and public health and environmental impact research, to better understand the socio-economic relationships in mining supply chains. We will focus on mineral waste in the Philippines (nickel mining waste) and Zambia (copper mining waste).
Our research, including physical property testing and characterisation of tailings samples, will advance the understanding of nickel-laterite ore deposits and assess their potential for carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS). We will also survey copper mining waste, to assess the bioavailability of potentially harmful elements. Coupled with remote sensing, this will monitor the spatial distribution of waste and any potential effect on local communities.
This work will build upon existing partnerships in the Philippines and the Zambian Copperbelt, and will address the circular economy drive for more efficient use of mineral resources throughout the production process and the sustainable mining ethos mitigating ecological risks to food and water. These are powerful drivers for change and the implementation of good practice that protects public health.
This project will address our ability to use geological knowledge to develop the potential of the subsurface, particularly for geothermal energy resources and carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS). It will involve establishing which geological circumstances are essential for the key technologies and strategies in the transition to net zero. In-depth gathering of data will enable us to design geological models with outcomes intended to inform policymakers of the most suitable geological locations for geothermal energy production or carbon dioxide (CO2) storage.
Rapid development of geothermal energy will contribute to the energy transition to net zero. However, further research is needed to better understand the location, temperature and fluid composition of geothermal resources in Africa, particularly in East Africa. Existing BGS datasets will be integrated into the East Africa Rift temperature and heat flow database and the Geothermal Atlas of Africa. A methodology will then be developed to identify superhot geothermal zones in a joint inversion scheme to model subsurface structure. This activity will be undertaken with partners in the East African Rift (Djiboutian Office of Geothermal Energy Development; University of Addis Ababa; universities of Nairobi and Dedan Kimathi; University of Dar es Salaam).
Subsurface CO2 storage
Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is also considered an important strategy for the energy transition to net zero. India, the world’s third-largest CO2 emitter, has until now paid little attention to CCUS in its drive for economic growth. However, with plans to increase India’s production of coal, oil and gas, CCUS is on the cusp of being recognised as important for the country’s continued economic development.
India is an exemplar for other developing countries that may be considering CCUS. We will use existing relationships with partners (Indian Institute of Technology; National Geophysical Research Institute; Tata Group; Essar Group) to identify research priorities for industrial decarbonisation in India. We will also enable stakeholders to understand how knowledge of subsurface storage can inform policymakers and how it can be beneficial for the country by reducing emissions. Our research, experience and expertise will be applied to enable the assessment of CO2 storage potential in selected sedimentary basins and the potential role of the Deccan Traps basalts in mineral trapping.
The role of groundwater in climate change adaptation and meeting growing global demand for reliable water supply is well recognised. More than fifty per cent of the world’s growing population relies on groundwater for drinking water and an increasing proportion of food production is irrigated with groundwater. However, as a hidden resource, groundwater is often poorly understood and managed, leading to overexploitation in some locations and underutilisation in others.
This project will build on our international groundwater expertise with existing academic, non-governmental organisation (NGO) and government partners to provide new insight to pressing groundwater issues in relation to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for water. The project aims to develop new understanding of these resources in Africa to unlock the potential for groundwater abstraction for community wells, distributed household networks and small-scale irrigation.
Combining detailed geological knowledge with hydrogeological studies with partners at the universities of Makerere, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Ibadan, we will develop new conceptual models of groundwater occurrence and publish maps in collaboration with UNICEF, UNESCO and the African Ministers Council for Water. Research will be conducted at a community scale with WaterAid and in-country research partners to optimise sustainable abstraction from individual wells to increase long-term functionality and examine the potential for increased pumping using solar energy.