Many if not most metals, rare earth minerals and other elements used to make everything from photovoltaic panels and cellphone displays to the permanent magnets in cutting edge new wind generators and motors will become limited in availability. Geologists are warning of shortages and bottlenecks of some metals due to an insatiable demand for consumer products.
2010 saw China restrict the export of neodymium, which is used in wind generators and motors. The move was said to direct the supplies toward a massive wind generation project within China. What happened was a two-tiered price for neodymium formed, one inside China and another, higher price, for the rest of the world.
Dr. Gawen Jenkin, of the Department of Geology, University of Leicester, and the lead convenor of the Fermor Meeting of the Geological Society of London that met to discuss this issue is reported in the journal Nature Geoscience, highlighting the dangers in the inexorable surge in demand for metals.
Dr Jenkin said: “Mobile phones contain copper, nickel, silver and zinc, aluminum, gold, lead, manganese, palladium, platinum and tin. More than a billion people will buy a mobile in a year — so that’s quite a lot of metal. And then there’s the neodymium in your laptop, the iron in your car, the aluminum in that soft drinks can — the list goes on…”
Jenkin continues, “With ever-greater use of these metals, are we running out? That was one of the questions we addressed at our meeting. It is reassuring that there’s no immediate danger of ‘peak metal’ as there’s quite a lot in the ground, still — but there will be shortages and bottlenecks of some metals like indium due to increased demand. That means that exploration for metal commodities is now a key skill. It’s never been a better time to become an economic geologist, working with a mining company. It’s one of the better-kept secrets of employment in a recession-hit world.”
There’s a “can’t be missed” clue on education and employment prospects. “And a key factor in turning young people away from the large mining companies — their reputation for environmental unfriendliness — is being turned around as they make ever-greater efforts to integrate with local communities for their mutual benefit,” said Jenkin.
Among the basics that need to be grasped to understand the current state of affairs are how rare many metals, minerals and elements really are. Some are plentiful, but only found in rare places or are difficult to extract. Indium, for instance, is a byproduct of zinc mining and extraction.
Economics professor Roderick Eggert of the Colorado School of Mines explains at the U.S. Geological Survey meeting indium is not economically viable to extract unless zinc is being sought in the same ore. Others are just plain scarce, like rhenium and tellurium, which only exist in very small amounts in Earth’s crust.
There are two fundamental responses to this kind of situation: use less of these minerals or improve the extraction of them from other ores in other parts of the world. The improved extraction methods seem to be where most people are heading.
Kathleen Benedetto of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Committee on Natural Resources, U.S. House of Representatives explains the Congress’ position for now by saying in a report abstract, “China’s efforts to restrict exports of mineral commodities garnered the attention of Congress and highlighted the need for the United States to assess the state of the Nation’s mineral policies and examine opportunities to produce rare earths and other strategic and critical minerals domestically. Nine bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to address supply disruptions of rare earths and other important mineral commodities.”
Another prominent session presenter Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey adds in her report abstract, “Deposits of rare earth elements and other critical minerals occur throughout the Nation.” That information puts the current events in the larger historical perspective of mineral resource management, which has been the U.S. Geological Survey’s job for more than 130 years. McNutt points out something interested citizens should be aware of, “The definition of ‘a critical mineral or material’ is extremely time dependent, as advances in materials science yield new products and the adoption of new technologies result in shifts in both supply and demand.”
The geopolitical implications of critical minerals have started bringing together scientists, economists and policy makers. Monday Oct 10th saw the professors presenting their research alongside high-level representatives from the U.S. Congress and Senate, the Office of the President of the U.S., the U.S. Geological Survey, in a session at the meeting of the Geological Society of America in Minneapolis.
Those metals, rare earth minerals and elements are basic building materials for much of what makes energy efficiency, a growing economy, lots of employment and affordable technology possible. Its good to see some action, if it’s only talking for now. At least the people who should be keeping the system working are sensing the forthcoming problem.
By. Brian Westenhaus