Study: Numerous Mineral Supply Constraints In Coming Decades, Global Resource Governance Needed

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New research argues that, owing to the projection that mining exploration for industrially important minerals isn’t keeping track with future demand and recycling on its own couldn’t possibly meet expected future demand, some sort of global resource governance is needed.

Saleem Ali at the Diavik Diamond Mine, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada.

The researchers argue that international coordination — with regard to where exploration investment is focused, the sharing of geoscience data, and the possible creation of mechanisms to protect mineral deposit finds (along the lines of intellectual property rights) — between various countries could help to better manage and deal with the expected resource shortages.

(Author’s note: That sounds to me either incredibly naive or like a setup for resource grabs in the poorer parts of the world — which are already ubiquitous.)

The press release does provide this bit though, to be fair: “The hard truth, though, is that if nothing changes, shrinking supply naturally will lead to rising prices. It also could lead to serious global challenges if essential resources that people have been so dependent on collapse.”

The study findings (with regard to exploration, mining, demand, and recycling) were the result of an analysis of accumulated data and industry forecasts. The research team included various figures from the industrial, academic, and government sectors — spread across the US, Europe, Australia, South America, and South Africa.

Continuing: “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.”

While the research was concerned primarily with so-called “technology minerals” (used in all manners of electronics and energy technologies), there are a number of other extremely industrially-important minerals that are very likely to face supply constraints in the near future, including copper.

The press release provides more: “For goods like clothing, cosmetics or electronics, price can easily trigger changes in supply. This is not possible with mineral supply, however, because the time horizon for developing a rare earth mineral deposit from exploration and discovery to mining is 10–15 years. For instance, the last major deposit for copper was discovered in Mongolia 15 years ago and only began producing in fall 2016, creating huge supply challenges.

“Added to this, only 10% of early exploration efforts actually lead to a minable deposit. Most discoveries are either not economically viable to mine or companies run into land use or zoning problems due to geopolitical challenges. … Then there is the common consumer misconception that we can just use something else. For many mineral uses, there are no alternatives. There are few commercially viable replacement minerals for many applications of copper wiring, for example. The same may be true for technology metals that could become essential in green technologies — like neodymium, terbium or iridium. These minerals are only needed in small quantities, but they are indispensable to making the technology work, meaning that while the scale seems small, the value is immense.”

Interestingly, the research made note of carbon fiber — with the takeaway being that the technology is highly dependent upon petroleum, and that it is extremely difficult (or impossible) to recycle. So, there’s certainly no “silver bullet” for metal ore shortages (shortages of cheap metal ore that is).

The new study is detailed in a peer-reviewed paper published in Nature.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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