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Critical mineralsThe challenge of sustainable mineral supply

Published 21 March 2017

An international team of researchers says global resource governance and sharing of geoscience data is needed to address challenges facing future mineral supply. Specifically of concern are a range of technology minerals, which are an essential ingredient in everything from laptops and cell phones to hybrid or electric cars to solar panels and copper wiring for homes. However, base metals like copper are also a matter of immense concern.

An international team of researchers, led by the University of Delaware’s Saleem Ali, says global resource governance and sharing of geoscience data is needed to address challenges facing future mineral supply.

Specifically of concern are a range of technology minerals, which are an essential ingredient in everything from laptops and cell phones to hybrid or electric cars to solar panels and copper wiring for homes. However, base metals like copper are also a matter of immense concern.

UD notes that the research team, which included experts from academic, government, and industrial institutions across five continents, the United States, Europe, South Africa, Australia, and South America, reported their findings today in Nature.

“There are treaties on climate change, biodiversity, migratory species and even waste management of organic chemicals, but there is no international mechanism to govern how mineral supply should be coordinated,” said Ali, the paper’s lead author and Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and Environment at UD.

The researchers reviewed data and demand forecasts on the sustainability of global mineral supplies in coming decades. The study showed that mining exploration is not keeping up with future demand for minerals and recycling in and of itself would not be able to meet the demand either.

At the same time, transitioning to a low carbon society will require vast amounts of metals and minerals to manufacture clean technologies and the researchers say society is not equipped to meet the additional needs for these raw materials.

According to the research team, international coordination is needed on where to focus exploration investment efforts, what kind of minerals are likely to be found in different locations and hence, what kind of bilateral agreements are needed between various countries.

Supply and demand
Global population numbers are expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, the target date for the United Nations sustainable development goals, meaning even more consumers in the marketplace.

The largest percentage of investment in a mineral for exploration is in gold, which although highly profitable, is largely used for jewelry.

Major commodity metals like iron ore, copper, and gold (and other precious metals) are sold on a global market the way that oil is sold. Rare earth metals and other technology minerals, however, are sold through individual dealers and prices can vary remarkably.