Mostly used in lead-acid car batteries, lead has a range of other applications – including in renewable energy technologies.
Lead’s attributes as a malleable and ductile metal with a low melting point means that it has multiple industrial applications, despite its high levels of toxicity. By far its most common use is in lead-acid batteries in cars with internal combustion engines. Yet as a corrosion-resistant and easily recyclable material, lead is also an important component of renewable energy technologies. Australia and China together account for more than half of mined lead production and reserves. Prices are generally less volatile than for most other traded commodities, reflecting how supply and demand tend to be relatively stable. Moreover, lead has one of the highest recycling rates of any material, mitigating the risk of future shortages.
Lead is highly toxic and the material is therefore exposed to ESG issues linked to pollution and negative human health impacts. Contamination with lead, as measured through blood levels, is linked to a range of serious health conditions. These health risks from pollution stretch across the material’s various transformation stages, from mining, to recycling operations and legacy infrastructure.
Main Uses and Attributes
Lead is one of the oldest metals exploited by humans, with the first recorded use over 5,000 years ago. It is rarely found in nature but occurs with other minerals, like galena (PbS), which is the primary source of lead. Lead is a malleable, ductile, dense and corrosion-resistant metal with a low melting point. These attributes contribute to the metal’s many industrial applications; for instance, lead’s corrosion-resistant properties led to its use in roofing materials, coverings for electric cables, and linings for water pipes.1https://www.britannica.com/science/lead-chemical-element However, lead is highly toxic and growing awareness of the health impacts of exposure to lead caused a reduction in its use in water systems, gasoline, paints, and solders, from the 1980s.2https://www.usgs.gov/centers/nmic/lead-statistics-and-information
Today, lead-acid storage batteries represent the most common lead application, accounting for over 90 percent of lead consumption in the United States in 2020.3https://pubs.usgs.gov/periodicals/mcs2021/mcs2021-lead.pdf Lead is also used to produce ammunition, a component of solder, fusible alloys, bearing alloys and pewter. Lead is also used as protective shielding against electromagnetic radiation in hospitals, nuclear reactors, and in containers used to transport and store radioactive materials.4https://www.britannica.com/science/lead-chemical-element The International Lead Association (ILA) highlights the use of lead as part of alloys to coat PV ribbons in solar panels,5http://ila-lead.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Lead-Matters-Casestudy-Solar.pdf as well as in lead-sheathed high-voltage subsea cables in offshore wind projects.6http://ila-lead.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Lead-Matters-Casestudy-Wind.pdf
Supply Chain Risk
TDi assesses Lead for key risks affecting the security of supply, and for its association with artisanal and small-scale mining.
Country Governance Risks
Lead's association with countries experiencing:
Association with ESG issues
TDi Sustainability's data rates Lead's association with the following issues as high or very high: