With decades of production of oil and gas, and more recent efforts greatly increasing infrastructure for renewable energy sources, Aberdeen is well-established as the energy capital of Europe. From production of hydrocarbons, onshore and offshore windfarms, biomass plants, and wave and tidal energy production sources, the ceiling for the energy producing capability of Aberdeenshire seems to rise ever higher.
Now, given the recent searches by a north-east mining company for cobalt, nickel and copper within surrounding farmlands, it appears Aberdeenshire has even more to offer with respect to energy production.
All three of these materials are vital components in the construction of motors and batteries of electric vehicles, so the farmlands of Aberdeenshire may now also play their part in the future of the electric vehicle (EV) market. With demand for electrical vehicles at an all-time high, it is clear why many in the area may be keen to utilise this potential.
While none of these materials are currently produced in the UK, it has long been thought that Aberdeenshire does have potential to provide up to a decade’s supply of nickel, copper and cobalt. Previous surveys in the 1970s and mid-2000s indicated that deposits were plentiful in Aberdeenshire; but the price environment was different and EV technology not as advanced, so little was done to bring it to extraction. Now, in 2022, with booming EV sales (in pursuit of moving away from traditional internal combustion engines), now may be the time to utilise these resources.
The rock type of particular interest is gabbro, a coarse-grained igneous rock, similar to granite. It is common across north-east Scotland but rare in the rest of the country, can hold copper, cobalt and nickel and the deposits of these materials in the Aberdeenshire gabbro are rich enough to make extraction viable. With the price of nickel, for example, recently topping £20,000 per tonne, and with demands for nickel, copper and cobalt only going to increase for the foreseeable future, the extraction viability will likely only increase.
There are still many technological, economic and environmental factors to be overcome to bring such an extraction project to fruition, but early indications have shown mining for these materials in Aberdeenshire is worth further investigation.
As outlined above, the push for mining these materials in the UK may also be driven by the fact that currently all three are only ever imported into this country. The UK Government has published a Mineral Strategy encouraging increased domestic production. Now though, the nearest copper mines to the UK are in Spain, Poland and Scandinavia; with nickel and cobalt also being mined in Scandinavia. Globally, the biggest producers are South America (copper), Democratic Republic of Congo (cobalt), and Russia and Indonesia (nickel).
Additionally, if EVs are to move towards solid-state battery technology in pursuit of far greater range capabilities, demand for copper, nickel and cobalt will again greatly increase.
Therefore, it will be very interesting watching technological developments in both EVs and mining/extraction techniques in the coming years, and what role Aberdeenshire may have to play.
Samuel Mailer is a European Patent Attorney with Marks & Clerk