Just how resourceful are we?

Materials World magazine
4 Dec 2011

The house asked if we should be concerned about the future global supply of strategic materials. After listening to the tactful use of statistics, semantics and the C word, delegates at the Royal Academy of Engineering debate in London, UK, had to decide. Eoin Redahan regurgitates both sides of the argument.

'There is no need for concern'

Horses lowered the tone in 19th Century London. With equine waste littering the roads, it was predicted that the city would be buried beneath manure by the year 2000.

The motion’s proponents argued that there is similar scaremongering today when it comes to strategic minerals. In the early 1970s, we were supposedly running out of tin, zinc and lead, yet they are still being mined 40 years later.

The evening’s first speaker, Andrew Bloodworth, Head of Science for Minerals and Waste at the British Geological Survey, said there hasn’t been an increase in new discoveries, but technological advances, improved methods of working old technology and better accessibility have helped increase yields in brownfield sites. ‘We can now move lowgrade deposits in more difficult environments,’ he said. ‘We are doing more with less.’

The motion’s second proponent, IOM3 President Jan Lewis, claimed there are plenty of reserves in mothball mines. He says that developments in the USA and Australia will provide sufficient access to rare earth materials by 2014.

He added that estimates can be skewed, with many being taken from stock market reports of publicly-listed companies. As companies don’t declare assets they are not developing, their reserves are underestimated. Furthermore, he said ‘there is a lack of transparency from certain countries. It’s hard to know what China’s got.’

Bloodworth explained, ‘The fundamental truth is global supply. I don’t believe we’re going to run out any time soon. The issue is not to do with physical availability. The ones who have [plenty of strategic minerals] – China – try to exert control over those who don’t.’

They argued that a possible reduction in supply is not necessarily a cause for concern as it could lead to more efficient use of existing resources. ‘The urban mine we’re living in is growing all the time, and we haven’t used it,’ he said. Delegates noted that while 70-90% of ferrous metals are recycled, less than 50% of non-ferrous metals and only 5% of platinum are recycled. However, there are encouraging signs. Lewis mentioned that 95% of European car materials will have to be recycled by 2015.

Nevertheless, Bloodworth said behaviour must be improved. ‘We have to be aware of using available resources. We’re putting 60-odd elements into phones. There are 9 billion mobile phones in the world. We’re dispersing this material. We can’t recycle our way out of this. We need to use materials better.’

However, Lewis added, ‘reduced supply increases the price, which adjusts behaviour’. Similarly, he said that the current dearth of relevant professionals will also change. ‘We’re all poaching each other’s graduates. Salaries will change. There is a time delay.’

But even if we become more responsible in the way we use resources, Bloodworth asserted that, ‘It’s really hard to predict future innovation. Nokia has used 15 battery technologies in the past 12 years. People make bad decisions based on what they think is going to run out.’

In the coming years, mining may not even be the best way to extract strategic minerals. ‘Imagine what we could do with seawater. It is absolutely full of metals that don’t need to be extracted.’

Not only is new technology difficult to predict, but social behaviour and demand are equally difficult to trace. After all, as Bloodworth surmised, ‘The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone’.

'Actually, we’re quite worried...'

According to one study, we will consume more minerals between now and 2050 than have ever been used in the world so far.

While Edward Bickham, former Executive Vice President and Group Head of External Relations at Anglo American plc, was keen to put into perspective our insatiable consumption, he emphasised that the argument was not geological.

We may have an adequate stock of strategic minerals at the moment, he said, but this does not mean there are no grounds for concern. ‘Global supply implies around the world, not merely what one or two countries can hug to their breasts.’

Indeed, if it were just down to geology and price, he would not be worried; but when political factors roam into spheres of influence, there can be trouble. ‘If you have one player that plays to one set of rules and everyone else plays to another,’ he says, ‘then things will come to a head’.

Bickham warned that resource nationalism will play a more prominent role as resources continue to dwindle. ‘Twice in the past four years, China has restricted access to rare earths,’ he noted. In one such incident, it temporarily rescinded Japanese access to rare earths after a maritime dispute.

According to one report, China is the lead producer of 27 out of 52 strategic minerals. It also accounts for 97% of rare earth supply, Bickham claimed. Furthermore, the increasing complexity of devices has not only led to a greater demand for materials, it has also led to a rethink of what are considered to be strategic materials. For example, in the 1980s, chips used 12 basic minerals, in the 1990s they used 16, and now, up to 60 different minerals are used in a device.

Recycling rare earths has also proven largely unsuccessful thus far. With less than 1% of rare earths being recycled, Professor Jan Cilliers, Head of the Department of Earth Sciences and Engineering at Imperial College London, said that devices should be recycled with disassembly in mind.

He noted that the ore bodies needed in devices such as lasers and readers for fibre optics are relatively scarce, and extracting these materials is a tricky task. ‘Each deposit is unique,’ he explained. ‘Each mineral needs to be extracted individually.’

Worryingly, the number of chemical engineers with the requisite expertise is decreasing. ‘These people are highly specialised engineers. How many are out there?’ Once again, if you are not of Chinese extraction the numbers quoted make grim reading. In answer to his own question, he said that the US and Australia produce no more than 40 minerals engineers each year, while China is producing up to 3,000.

Cilliers was also sceptical whether a hike in salaries would bolster recruitment. One delegate noted the difficulty in hiring chemical engineers, lamenting that at least half the professional pool would prefer to live in cities, rather than in more remote mining regions.

Cilliers explained, ‘Salaries aren’t the only driver. We can’t get young people to do what we like simply by paying them more. Truck drivers in Western Australia are being paid AUS$150,000, and they still don’t want to do it.’

For the motion’s opponents, all of this could leave UK industry in a particularly vulnerable position. As one delegate noted, ‘There is a situation where supply could be turned off overnight – and I don’t think many countries are buffering themselves against that’.

As the audience began to mentally sift through the evening’s arguments, Cilliers offered his final assessment of the subject. ‘There must be some concern. Otherwise, you would be doing something else.’

To whom it may concern

And so it came to the audience to pick apart the threads of interwoven argument. By the end of the debate, they had listened to enough interpretations of the words concern and supply to blur their meaning forever.

Nevertheless, when delegates’ hands pointed at the ceiling, the verdict was more resolute. The house believed that there is no need for concern about the future global supply of strategic minerals. On this occasion, saluting hands sent the house crashing down.