MINING may not be the first industry that comes to mind when imagining a clean energy future for Scotland.

But if the country is to truly embrace renewable energy technology, then attention must be paid to the raw materials that make it possible in the first place.

The importance of critical minerals – that is, minerals (and metals) that are essential for the transition to clean energy but lacking in globally plentiful supply – cannot be underestimated.

Cobalt, nickel and lithium are key ingredients in the creation of batteries for electric cars and a number of so-called Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are needed in the production of permanent magnets for offshore wind turbines.

At the moment, however, the supply chain for many of these materials is considered unreliable and is concentrated in a few select countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and China.

“In order to meet the demand for electric vehicles the world needs to supply significantly more amounts of cobalt, nickel, lithium and graphite,” said Eimear Deady, a senior economic geologist at the British Geological Survey.

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“It’s estimated that there needs to be around a five-fold increase in the supply of these materials by 2040.

“And the geology of Scotland, when it comes to minerals like graphite, cobalt and nickel, would be considered prospective. However, there’s been relatively little exploration for them.”

Scotland could literally rest on a supply of materials that are fast becoming essential to the domestic and global energy transition.

Yet very little is being done to even explore the extent of this resource.

Indeed, the Scottish Government’s draft energy strategy and just transition plan contained no mention of minerals at all. “Raw material supply should become more and more part of the national conversation around energy transition,” said Fraser Gardiner, the CEO of Aberdeen Minerals Limited (AML).

“It’s rarely a thing that’s talked about, where these metals come from.

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“Yet all of these things – the electrification of the economy, battery storage, electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels – are all very metal intensive.

“We’re reducing our reliance on fossil fuels but simultaneously increasing our dependence on another form of natural resource.”

AML is currently in the exploration stage for critical minerals at a site in Aberdeenshire.

It recently commenced a drilling programme and by the middle of the year expects to have up-to-date information on the potential for extraction in the area.

Dr Kathryn Goodenough, a principal geologist at the British Geological Survey, said that more exploration needs to be done now if mines are to exist within Scotland in the next few decades: “For any company, from starting exploration to getting to the point where they open a mine, we’d expect that to take between 10-15 years”

“That’s normal. It takes a very, very long time to find prospective ground, confirm that it’s prospective, build investor confidence, and gain agreement from regulators and local communities.

“About one in 1000 target sites become mines. That being said, it does happen.

“But if we want to have our own source of critical minerals, we have to be doing much more exploration now to have the chance of having any mines in 10 or 15 years' time.”

Approximately 75% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, typically as part of joint ventures with Chinese investors.

While some mines do adhere to health and safety standards, a minority of smaller-scale producers do not.

Instances of child labour, death, corruption and poverty have all been reported from mines in the DRC – the fruits of which are in high demand for smartphones as well as renewables.

Without proper safeguards, the practice can also cause problems environmentally, affecting both water quality and biodiversity.

“There’s always going to be some impact on the environment,” said Gardiner.

“And that has to be part of the conversation, too. But shouldn’t we be trying to make sure that these minerals are mined within a regulatory framework and social environment where we can ensure high standards?

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“Because we know that, right now, that’s not always the case. We’re just relying on these materials coming from overseas.”

A criticism levelled at the UK’s fossil fuel infrastructure is its lack of capacity to refine oil.

The overall capacity of oil refineries in the UK has fallen by around 30% since 2010, meaning that we end up exporting a significant portion overseas to be turned into a usable product.

However, that engenders vulnerability as our energy supply is exposed to the whims of the global market.

If the processing of minerals and metals took place in the UK, that vulnerability would be significantly reduced for renewables.

“In the case of all the metals needed for renewables, a lot of the processing happens in China,” said Deady. “It’s a huge supply bottleneck.

“So, even if nickel was extracted in the UK, it’s possible that the ore would get shipped somewhere else for further processing. It’s very common.

“But Scotland already has some big areas where chemical engineering goes on. The potential for building processing plants is certainly something that could be looked at.

“In addition, being able to link that to offshore wind for your energy demand is a really powerful thing to do.

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“Having renewable energy supplying your metal processing would be an incredibly neat way of doing it.”

Gardiner confirmed this was something AML was interested in for the long term.

“The whole industry is looking at reducing its environmental impact and carbon footprint,” he said.

“A lot of that could come from keeping these products local rather than shipping them halfway around the world for processing."

AML is not the only company currently scoping out sites for critical mineral extraction in Scotland, although it is the one furthest along in the process.

But at present, very little attention is paid to the potential of the industry in Scotland.

If we really want to become a world leader in renewables, perhaps the time has come to consider the value not just of our wind, tides and sunshine, but of the very ground beneath our feet.