I’m a fervent consumer of books, especially from the realm of non-fiction. Reading has allowed me to broaden my view of the world around me, and most importantly helps me to look at things with less ignorance than before. I aspire to read at least 2 hours a day, and most of the time I do so in the early morning. I wake up with coffee, get on my bicycle, and proceed to the nearest public park. There, with an extensive view over the river Rhine, I plop down on my favorite spot. I can be found there reading for hours on end, at least, that is until my favorite Surinamese deli opens up. After having been filled up with some of the best breakfast in town, I set forth with my day. It is this very elemental habit that allowed me to peek into a large number of interesting fields.
One of the fields that has massively drawn my interest lately is the very reason you’re probably on this website right now, namely the junior resource sphere. It was an accidental detour that introduced me to the sector, but fascinated by its esoteric nature, I decided to read up on it and was subsequently captured by the genie. I’m in no doubt still a neophyte - with less than a year of experience under my belt (but somehow did manage to lose half my fortune here… classic story isn’t it?). But to touch on the heart of the matter; last week I read a very good book on the broader topic of resource development. Therefore, I figured why not write a book review on it? C'est ca.
Volt Rush - The Winners and Losers in the Race to Go Green
Author: Henry Sanderson
As the title of the book already connotes, Volt Rush draws a resemblance to something which many people already are very familiar with; a gold rush - which is usually defined as an energetic proliferation of activity in the search for the precious metal. The common theme in Volt Rush builds on this very phenomenon, with one important difference. This time it’s not about gold, but about volt. Volt, the unit for electromagnetic force, is a reference to the metals that constitute - and are elemental - to an electrified world. These metals - also coined battery metals - are nickel, copper, lithium and cobalt. They can be seen as the 4 fundamental forces enabling our transition to a decarbonized world. As we transition our economy from one that is based on fossil fuels, to one that is deficient of those - accompanied with that come significant changes in the material streams that constitute these economies. Volt Rush walks the reader through on how these shifts in commodity flows engender fundamental changes all around the globe. Some shocking insights ensue. Most notably might be the prospect that the major energy-commodity powerhouses of today might be the very losers of tomorrow. Many people today point to the awkward concentration of fossil fuel suppliers, as manifested by cartels like OPEC that hold an immense grip over their markets. Well, hold on to your hats - in a post-carbon world this is only set to get worse.
Henry Sanderson starts his monologue at the very fundamental root of the post-carbon world; batteries. Subsequently, the reader is immersed in something which resembles the very biography of the battery. From Volta - the man who created the world's first working battery - to Thomas Edison, who painstakingly tried to build a battery that should’ve allowed for a broad adoption of EV’s at the beginning of the 20th century. A notion eventually abandoned to technical challenges and not unimportantly due to the prodigious rise of the internal combustion engine fueled by none other than Henry Ford. It was only after the invention and the subsequent incremental improvements in lithium ion batteries that the idea of an electric vehicle was revived. Frankly, electric vehicles couldn’t be more different in nature than their combustion counterparts, something which is arguably best epitomized by the colossal battery mounted to the car. It is the constituents of this battery, the previously mentioned battery metals, where Sanderson subsequently draws his focus on.
Nickel, copper, lithium and cobalt. The magic four. But what are these metals exactly? and not unimportantly, where are they sourced from? Anderson takes these questions head-on. The reader is submerged in the world of the vast industries that reign these kingdoms. Practically invisible to the average consumer, these corporate giants have amassed enormously strategic positions in the value chain of tomorrow. From midstream behemoths like battery cell producer CATL, to further upstream giants like Ganfeng Lithium and Huayou Cobalt, Sanderson provides stunning insight into their workings and ways of doing business. What becomes strikingly clear is that the Chinese have amassed total dominance over the value chain.
Sanderson then lucidly illustrates how the Chinese have strategically built these positions. One of the methods applied by the Chinese is the strategic acquisition of foreign resources. On this topic, Anderson describes in striking detail how the feud between SQM’s chairman Ponce Lerou and Tianqi Lithium evolved as the Chinese firm began increasing its stake in the Chilean lithium miner. On the cobalt side it becomes clear that the Chinese are less rigorous than Western companies when it comes to sourcing from artisanal miners. However, the West has its own scapegoats as well. Subsequently, the opaque business relations between the Swiss conglomerate Glencore and the Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler come to light. The stakes prove to be massive.
On the domain of nickel, the reader is taken along on a journey to Indonesia. Indonesia - being the world's largest producer of (ferro)nickel - hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Chinese either. Here too, the Chinese have amassed strategic stakes in the nickel value chain. From the myriad of Chinese mining companies extracting the nickel ore from Indonesia’s laterite deposits to the massive nickel ore processing plant at the Morowali Industrial complex on the island of Sulawesi, owned by the Chinese conglomerate Tsingshan (also the culprit in the recent nickel short-squeeze). Again, it becomes salient that here too, the Chinese own the market.
The Morowali Industrial complex - owned by the Chinese conglomerate Tsingshan
More related topics are thoroughly discussed, from deep-sea mining to how recycling can change the material flows for once and for all. It’s a true holistic view that the reader can appreciate. Sanderson ends on an important note. He travels to the region of Cornwall, England. Historically, it was one of the epicenters of mineral extraction on the European continent. Now, the place is lying idle. It might be the very epitome of the Western psyche when it comes to mining, it being embarrassingly idle too. However, a little breath of fresh air can be detected. In Cornwall there is burgeoning interest in the mineral potential the region holds, and some companies are taking the first steps to eventual development and bringing production back to Europe. It seems like the West is slowly starting to realize the truly massive transition ahead, and them evidently not being the leaders of the pack.
It’s a conclusion unmistakably brought forward by Sanderson. The post-carbon world will be unrecognizable to many. Surprises will unfold to those uninformed, and anticipation will prove to be key.
I can definitely recommend Volt Rush to anyone that is interested in the topic of resource development and mineral commodity markets. But not only that. Personally, I think Volt Rush is one of the books that should be marked as obligatory reading material for anyone that wishes to foster a thorough understanding of global key issues, and transnational relationships. In the decades ahead, we will see unprecedented developments in the field of resource extraction. However, this time it is not a rush for gold, but a rush for volt.