World faces minerals shortages

6 April 2017

Key minerals will soon be in short supply because of a lack of investment in new mines, according to a study.

An international team of researchers, led by Saleem Ali, professor of energy and environment at the University of Delaware, is calling for global resource governance and sharing of geoscience to stave off mineral shortfalls.

In a paper published in the journal Nature, the researchers said they were concerned about shortage of supply of technology minerals that are essential in laptops, mobile phones, hybrid and electric cars and solar panels.

Exploration for new mines was not keeping pace with demand for minerals. The largest percentage of exploration investment went into gold, which is largely used for jewellery.

And whereas prices for rare earth metals can change rapidly, it typically takes 10-15 years from discovering a new supply of rare earth mineral deposits to mines coming online.

Copper is another major source of worry, the research team said. In many of its uses, for example in wiring, it cannot be easily substituted by any other metal.

The last major deposit for copper was discovered in Mongolia 15 years ago and only began producing late in 2016.

Rare metals such as neodymium, terbium and iridium are becoming indispensable to making green technologies such as energy-savings lights and permanent magnet generators for wind turbines. Meanwhile, the transition to a low carbon society will require vast amounts of metals and minerals to manufacture clean technologies.

Researchers say there is no current capacity to meet the additional demand for these raw materials.

They are urgently calling for international coordination on exploration investment, mineral locations and what kind of bilateral agreements are needed between countries.

“There are treaties on climate change, biodiversity, migratory species and even waste management of organic chemicals,” said Ali.

“But there is no international mechanism to govern how mineral supply should be coordinated.”

A further complication is that only around 10% of exploration sites become mines because most are not economically viable or face land use problems.

“Countries where minerals are likely to be found may have poor governance, making it higher risk for supply. But production from these countries will be needed to meet global demand. We need to be thinking about this,” Ali added.

In addition, metals and carbon fibre used in the manufacture of aircraft and some cars present new environmental challenges.

“Because they are lighter, people think they are somehow greener, but they aren’t and they are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle,” Ali said.

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