Can Mining and Decarbonization Coexist?


Can Mining and Decarbonization Coexist?

Do artificial intelligence (AI) and super computers have the answer to the world’s need for sustainable materials? From a mining perspective, the short (and possibly unhelpful) response is yes, they have many answers for how to decarbonize the sector—but certainly not all of them.  

I have been reflecting on the role of AI in mining after scientists recently used the technology to discover a new substance that could potentially reduce lithium use in batteries by up to 70%, according to a recent story by BBC News. This could be a huge development if produced at scale. It is also exciting to see that AI has potential real-world impact beyond the tech talk from companies competing to release newer, more intelligent models. But it ultimately reminds me of how much the world relies on mining for decarbonization.

There is no doubt that AI can—and will—help us to provide the critical minerals needed for the global energy transition. However, with miners facing their own sustainability challenges, it will not be the only tool needed to drive decarbonization in mining. Lubrication also has a crucial role to play in helping miners to reshape their operations and transform the world’s supply chains, starting today. 

Why the World Depends on Mining for Decarbonization 

It is no surprise to those of us working in the mining sector that scientists have been looking for a way to reduce the need for lithium. The soft metal, often referred to as “white gold,” is an effective example of how demand for the critical minerals needed to decarbonize the world’s supply chains is growing rapidly—and potentially quicker than we can keep up with. 

To put the problem in perspective, we will need more than six times the amount of lithium currently available in the world by 2030, according to a 2023 report published by McKinsey. This is because global demand for lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries is set to soar over the next ten years as every sector works to electrify its operations. Similarly, the electric vehicles (EVs) that will be critical to that electrification effort will require six times more critical minerals than their conventional counterparts, according to 2022 research by Statista.

This means establishing around 50 more lithium mining operations, 60 more nickel mines and 17 more cobalt mines by 2030 to meet demand, according to’s coverage of a report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA). So even with AI breakthroughs, miners are under pressure to produce more—all while facing their own sustainability challenges. 

Mining Must Address its Own Sustainability Challenges First 

If you think that finding and extracting all the extra materials needed to support global decarbonization sounds tough, that is only part of the challenge. Sustainability has quickly become a priority for miners, so sites are now under immense pressure to reduce their own emissions and improve the wider environmental impact of their operations. 

As Shell’s recent “Breaking New Ground: Shaping a Successful Future for Mining” report highlights, emissions are a hot topic in mining right now. Around a quarter (26%) of miners say that societal pressure to reduce CO2 emissions will be one of the factors that has the biggest impact on mining site operations over the next 3-5 years.  

The report also highlights that many sites are already working to improve the sustainability of their operations. Almost half (45%) of miners are using sustainable packaging, while four out of ten (40%) are using biodegradable consumables. Roughly a third are making a concerted shift toward mining techniques that are less harmful to the environment (37%) and/or investing in low-emission or renewable electricity for their site operations (32%).  

This shows the broad range of actions miners have taken to decarbonize their operations, from the energy that powers everything to the lubricants that keep their equipment running smoothly. But the simple fact is that they must do more, and all while dealing with the biggest overall challenge highlighted in Shell’s report—the rising cost of consumables. 

Thankfully, there is a way for miners to do both: by doubling down on their lubrication programs to improve the total cost of ownership (TCO) and the sustainability of their operations simultaneously. 

Lubricants Can Lead the Way to Efficiency and Sustainability 

To deal with rising costs and the pressure to be more sustainable, miners need to achieve three aims. They must produce more, emit less and make cost savings wherever possible. This means working even more efficiently than ever—with equipment playing a critical role. Unplanned downtime for any of their machines will only make the job more difficult, which is why maintenance programs offer miners a key opportunity for efficiency gains. 

With so much going on across a mine site, lubricants might not seem like the priority. But effective lubrication underpins efficient operations. For example, by selecting the right high-performance lubricants for each application—and managing them as effectively as possible—sites can reduce their overall maintenance budgets by up to 30% each year, according to Shell’s “Reducing the Total Cost of Ownership in Mining and Quarrying” article. 

As well as extending equipment life and improving TCO, effective lubrication can support a mine site’s sustainability ambitions. A report, based on a June 2022 survey to 561 decision makers in the mining industry commissioned by Shell Lubricant Solutions and conducted by Edelman Intelligence, found that by selecting the right lubricants—and managing them correctly—miners can improve equipment efficiency by up to 20% while reducing CO2 emissions by up to 20%.

Shell’s report also found that many miners are already using their maintenance programs in this way. Around four out of ten (41%) are currently using higher-tier lubricants with performance benefits that help to drive efficiency and sustainability, with another third (33%) set to do so over the next 1-2 years. Similarly, 40% are already using biodegradable consumables to address concerns over contamination and improve their water stewardship.  

This is the impact that effective lubrication can have on mining operations, but you will no doubt have noticed that a key phrase in this is “managed effectively and correctly.” This is because the efficiency improvements do not stop at lubricant selection. 

Miners Should Dig into the Data Behind their Operations 

The right lubricants can help miners to operate more efficiently, lower their emissions and deliver cost savings. But to make the most of this, miners will need to manage their lubrication systems effectively, and that often means tapping into digital tools and expert technical services. 

Digital technologies that support equipment maintenance can help mine sites to unlock further opportunities for efficiency. By using sensors and machine learning, mines can implement predictive maintenance, helping to extend component lifetime by up to 50%, according to a 2022 report by McKinsey. 

Technical services from lubricant suppliers have a key role to play as well, helping miners to make informed decisions based on expert analysis. Programs such as oil condition monitoring (OCM) can help to detect equipment failures early, enabling sites to avoid unplanned downtime and lost productivity. 

Growing digitalization also highlights how vital data is to the future of mining operations. After all, if miners do not have clear data processes, how can they manage their equipment effectively, let alone measure any emissions reductions or efficiency gains? 

Miners Do Not Have to Overcome their Challenges Alone 

It can be overwhelming diving into the conversation around TCO and sustainability. There is so much for miners to think about all the time—even when focusing on maintenance alone. Do you have the right lubricants? Are you managing them as effectively as possible? How are you measuring this, and how are you spotting issues before they undermine operations? 

All of these questions underline the importance of working with the right partners. Miners should not expect to have all the answers. They should be looking for partners who do. This means working with suppliers who see the provision of high-performance and biodegradable lubricant products as a basic requirement. Suppliers who also provide products that enable the use of low- or zero-emission equipment, full lubricant management support and data-driven digital services that help to improve efficiency and extend equipment life. 

Collaboration—and expert support—will be critical in driving productivity while reducing emissions and making cost savings. After all, miners will need to work with their suppliers to adapt to the long-term impact of their decarbonization journey. For instance, the growing use of Li-ion batteries will mean rising demand for battery coolants. It is that kind of forward thinking that makes it vital for miners to collaborate with partners who not only understand their specific needs but can also deliver the expertise and solutions to address and anticipate them. 

One Big Question Miners Should Be Asking 

Digital technology will continue to affect every area of mining operations. As it evolves, smart mining will become the default, offering miners the opportunity to use real-time data to optimize their maintenance and lubrication programs. 

AI will no doubt continue to grab the headlines as it continues to develop. However, right now the technology is unlikely to provide mine sites with the real-world answers they need to decarbonize their operations today.  

When it comes to driving efficiency and sustainability through maintenance, the one prompt that I suggest all miners ask about their operations is, how can I get the most out of my high-performance lubricants?  

Author’s Note: Additional risk factors that may affect future results are contained in Shell plc’s Form 20-F for the year ended Dec. 31, 2022 (available at and

Elitza Terzova is global sector manager for mining with Shell Lubricants Solutions.