Securing minerals supply

Materials World magazine
1 Nov 2008

Creativity is needed to secure future minerals supplies as countries face the squeeze from resource-rich developing nations. That was the message delivered by experts from the British Geological Survey (BGS) at the event, ‘Meeting the mineral commodity challenge’, held in London, UK, on 14 October 2008.

Slavko Solar, of the Association of the European Geological Survey, outlined plans for a possible EU non-energy materials policy. These include limiting restrictions on companies who seek to access new materials, emphasising the use of R&D, promoting projects that demonstrate resource efficiency, and intensifying dialogue with non-EU countries. This policy is expected to be adopted by the EU Parliament by 5 November.

While there is not likely to be a major minerals shortage in the near future, given the fact that these materials often come from developing countries whose own needs are increasing, there is some cause for concern. Gus Gunn, Head of Science for Minerals at the BGS, noted that in Brazil, Russia, India, and China, the standard of living is increasing, creating a greater demand for minerals for construction and energy.

China, which is expected to have 221 cities with populations of over one million people by 2025, has already put limits on exports – a worrying development, as it is the world’s largest producer of 36 commodities, including graphite and tungsten.

Increased recycling, pollution controls, substitution of minerals with plastics (such as in fibre optics), and the global economic crisis, which will drive down demand, will help counteract the minerals squeeze from such countries. But the safest move companies can make to secure minerals is to use ingenuity, noted Gunn. Seabed mining, such as that soon to be carried out by Neptune and Nautilus Minerals in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, and arctic exploration, have exposed new sources of cobalt, gold, base metals and hydrocarbons.

Underdeveloped countries such as Afghanistan, Mongolia and Pakistan have also demonstrated rich sources of copper and other minerals. New geophysical technologies such as in depth datasets, 3D models, and airborne mapping have allowed diamond sources in north Canada to be located, as well as minerals reserves in highly developed areas such as North Ireland. Here, 70% of the region is under licence applications.

In situ mining, such as leaching or electrowinning, has also allowed low-grade ores and copper which were considered unmineable to be developed. Improved drilling and ventilation techniques have also permitted miners to dig beyond 1,000m.

Solar noted that there is no EU budget for continental geolgical surveys, and one delegate expressed disappointment that there would be no directive to protect minerals supply for the EU. ‘But at least awareness is being raised,’ said Solar. Gunn added that there are several resources within Europe, ‘the key issue is access’ – a topic that will need to overcome environmental concerns before it can be explored.

Further information: Minerals UK